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Bay Area city gets free Wi-Fi via high-tech meters

SANTA CLARA — The city of Santa Clara flipped on a big Internet switch this week, becoming what it says is the first in the country to use wireless, digital "smart meters" on homes as channels for free citywide outdoor Wi-Fi.

"This is just one of the major benefits our community will enjoy as a result of our advanced metering technology," said John Roukema, director of Silicon Valley Power, the community's utility provider. "Now our residents, visitors and local workforce can get Internet access while waiting for a train, shopping downtown, getting their car washed or relaxing in their yard."

Like cities around the U.S., Santa Clara's electric meters are being systematically replaced, house by house, with high tech ones, eliminating the need for meter readers to manually check each one every month but raising concerns about health effects, privacy and cost.

The new meters send electricity and water usage reports via wireless network, but in Santa Clara, a city of 118,000 in the heart of the Silicon Valley, they also have an unusual separate channel that provides free, outdoor Internet.

Sascha Meinrath, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Open Technology Institute, said using meters as Internet channels is a "a real Faustian bargain," a smart use of technology that will require "privacy protections that are second to none."


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