When Google announced on Tuesday that it had launched a free municipal wireless network in its home town of Mountain View, we here at PC Magazine decided it was time for a road trip.
Free muni Wi-Fi sounded too good to be true, so we just had to see it for ourselves.
Equipped with a laptop, some speed-testing software, and a map of the service area provided by Google, we hit the road in search of Wi-Fi gratis.
My road trip to Mountain View started where all respectable road trips begin: Taco Bell. My editors made a point of warning me not to sit in my car with a laptop in front of police stations, so I figured geeking it out in a Taco Bell parking lot would be less suspicious.
I was told by Google spokesperson Megan Quinn that I should not need any help logging onto the network. I would be given a welcome screen where I could either sign in with a Google account or take less than a minute creating one.
When I searched for the network in the Taco Bell parking lot, however, I came up short.
Using an Odyssey program to scan for wireless connections, I found a network called "GoogleWiFi," but the strength was poor and I kept getting dropped from my connection.
Hopeful because I could at least find the network, I drove up the road a bit. As I was driving, my network strength increased. (No, I wasn't computing and driving at the same time. I had enlisted a tech-savvy sidekick for the journey.)
I pulled over into a Safeway parking lot, only to have the same experience. I could find the signal but kept getting dropped from the connection. I drove on.
Once I hit downtown Mountain View, around Castro Street and California Street, the wireless signal strengthened.
When I pulled over in front of a building called the Silicon Valley Center, a company that also has a Wi-Fi signal that I could easily pick up, I was up and running on Google's network and it was pretty darn good.
I browsed with some impressive speeds and was able to run two instant messaging programs at the same time I was working from our VPN client and streaming music from an iTunes radio station.
One drawback, however, was that a speed test showed that I only had download speeds of 1,001 kilobits per second (kbps) and upload speeds of 198 kbps, while my partner was running on the Silicon Valley Center network with download speeds of 3,607 kbps and upload speeds of 3,692 kbps.
I proceeded up the road to the Starbucks on Castro Street. I must admit that I was eager to trump the T-Mobile network.
I had absolutely no problems working from Google's network inside the Starbucks. Even though my speed test showed download speeds of 299 kbps and upload speeds of a miserable 64 kbps, I was still browsing and working at an impressive connection rate.
I even was able to make a Skype phone call, and if hadn't been so noisy, I would have been able to actually communicate with the person on the other end of the line.
I proceeded to make a few more stops around Mountain View and got the same results.
I initially wondered how Google could prevent hackers from using their networks, but when my partner and I both worked from Google's network, we each had different IP addresses so any malicious activity we might have done would have been easily traced.
In June at the MuniWireless conference, Chris Sacca, principal of new business development for Google, spoke about Google's free municipal wireless ambitions.
"Now I'm mostly haunted by lampposts," Sacca said. "Everywhere I go, I see lampposts. They've come to dominate the landscape for me. That's the obsessive state to which my life has arrived."
I was warned by Quinn that there would be some areas where I would not be able to pick up the signal because Google had not yet installed the nodes on lampposts in those private areas.
She assured me that Google is working quickly to convince the various homeowners' associations and private property owners that Wi-Fi nodes are in their best interest.
All in all, the network is impressive, although it is clear that it is in its infancy and can only get better. Many are comparing the emergence of municipal Wi-Fi to the evolution of the mobile-phone industry.
"It takes 10 years or more for wireless infrastructure to mature and become a viable useful commodity in our lives," said Steve Goldberg, a venture capitalist with Venrock Associates, at the MuniWireless conference in June. "It's going to take a few years for things to settle out. Cellular is going to get better, Wi-Fi is certainly is going to get better and WiMax is going to be out there too."
I predict that it may not take that long. Google's Mountain View network certainly works better than my father's car phone did in the late '80s.
As Rich Redelfs with Foundation Capital puts it, "This is not your father's Ethernet."
For information on using Google's Mountain View Wi-Fi, go to http://wifi.google.com/support.
Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.