And then there's the allure of attention in the press, a key motivator behind these kinds of political decisions. Giving all your citizens free access to the Internet -- and, if they know how to use VoIP technology, free long-distance calls -- plays well in the local media, and is something easy to remember come re-election time. And it often means helping small businesses and winning allies in other areas of the tech industry.
While it's unclear whether WFI is partnering with Google in other cities (company officials declined requests for an interview), WFI is having pretty good luck on its own. Last Friday, the city of Madison, Wis., chose it to provide network design and deployment services for its proposed municipal Wi-Fi network. For that project, it teamed with Madison Gas and Electric.
Meanwhile, more cities are exploring wireless access. "Following Philadelphia and San Francisco, other municipalities are studying government-supported Wi-Fi deployment," says John Bright, an analyst at Avondale Partners, which has no underwriting relationship with WFI. The city council of Nashville, Tenn., formed a task force to look into such a project, and San Jose, Calif., is considering proposals to broadly expand its sparse wireless zones.
Of course, a lot has to happen before Google and WFI can crow about setting up a citywide Wi-Fi network in one of the world's biggest technology nerve centers. Among the competing bidders are companies like MetroFi, a privately-held company that has set up wireless access in two California cities, Santa Clara and Cupertino, although for a monthly rate of $19.95.But WFI brings to the table more than 10 years of experience in the wireless-network industry, including municipal wireless services such as digital video surveillance, building access controls, automated meter reading and public safety applications. And it lists major telecom companies among its customers, including Verizon (VZ - Get Report), Sprint (S) and Cingular Wireless.