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Man-on-the-street hears wireless pitch

| Tuesday, June 4, 2002

When Scott Legg approaches people in downtown Pittsburgh's Mellon Square with his laptop computer open and humming away, he never knows what to expect.

Legg is regional sales manager for Grok Technology Inc., a wireless technology firm that is conducting a pilot program to introduce wireless Internet access to the masses. Demonstrations are being offered at Market Square Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Legg approaches lunchtime patrons at Mellon Square with his laptop and shows them how effortless and how fast wireless Internet access can be.

"It really is the newest technology," said Legg, who has been spending his mornings and afternoons since May 20 with the Pittsburgh Public Wireless Internet pilot program, going up to perfect strangers and asking them about their Internet usage.

Grok Technology has installed a small directional antenna on the 13th floor of the Regional Enterprise Tower, across from Mellon Square, which provides the wireless Internet access through a technology called wireless fidelity or "Wi-Fi." Laptops used in the demonstrations are equipped with plug-in cards with an antenna to provide the communications link.

The wireless access transfers data at 11 megabytes per second, compared to 1.4 megabytes for a T-1 line, which is one of the fastest telephone wire-connected delivery systems available.

Danette L. O'Connell, Grok Technology's founder and chief executive, is funding the $8,000 pilot program, which she said will increase the wireless Internet market in Pittsburgh. Her goal, in partnership with Three Rivers Connect, a technology advocacy organization, is to have Pittsburgh be the first city to become entirely wireless Internet capable.

"We want that to be how Pittsburgh is seen in other cities," said O'Connell. "We don't want people to think of Pittsburgh in old terms, but as a technology center."

To reach total wireless capability city-side would mean installing hundreds and perhaps thousands of antennas in strategic places, creating an umbrella of coverage to allow wireless access to everyone.

Three Rivers Connect, Grok Technology's partner, also is advocating increased availability of other types of high-speed Internet connections, as well.

"There are many ways to connect to the Internet," said George Heinitsh, chief technology officer for Three Rivers Connect.

Its Digital Rivers project, a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, is concentrating on increased availability of wire and fiber optic connections to the Internet using cable or DSL technology. "We took a hard look at fiber and wireless, and all other things being equal, we decided that we would like to see more fiber connections."

Heinitsh said that each technology has its pros and cons. "Wired connections tend to be more reliable and tend to have greater capacity," he said, "while wireless tends to be quicker to implement and less expensive."

But Heinitsh said it is not a matter of either-or.

"Even with these wireless systems, they have to be connected to the Internet. With Grok's pilot program, you have a wireless umbrella connected to that antenna, which is connected to a wire connection. They are complimentary, not competing."

The short presentation that Legg makes to park patrons includes a short survey. O'Connell said she has been pleasantly surprised by the results so far.

"People have been very receptive," said O'Connell. "It has been a better response than I expected."

She said that the people seem genuinely interested in wireless Internet access, and recognize the benefits of accessing the Internet through a laptop anywhere they go.

O'Connell said she hopes to interest not only private citizens but also businesses and government in the Pittsburgh area.

"We've been talking with the city and the county about wireless Internet access. We hope to interest them in making the City-County Building wireless and also the county Courthouse," said O'Connell, who started Grok in April 2001.

"If the courts are wireless, then all the attorneys in the Law & Finance Building and the Oxford Building can have access to all of their files no matter where they go."

"We're looking to expand, not only in the city, but also to other cities," said O'Connell.

Similar pilot programs will be launched in Oakland, the Strip District, the North Shore and the South Side.

"We know that there is interest in Oakland, both from the schools there and the businesses," said O'Connell. "Carnegie Mellon University long ago embraced wireless access."

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