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Wi-Fi a highlight of the menu

At Artisans Gallery & Cafe, visitors can log on for free.

If you stop in Artisans Gallery & Café in Phoenixville and order a cappuccino and a mini-cheesecake pastry, you are buying more than just a caffeine buzz and a snack for your sweet tooth. You're also buying access to the World Wide Web.

The café, which is entering its second year of business on Bridge Street, is one of a growing number of local establishments to provide its customers with free wireless internet access.

The burgeoning availability of Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) hot spots (access points) throughout Chester County reflects the global trend of expanded access, the end result of which may be a whole world under the blanket of Wi-Fi, which Philadelphia is in the process of configuring.

"It's a nice thing to have, and it doesn't really cost me much to provide it," Rich Holck, owner of Artisans, said of the free Wi-Fi. Holck needed to wire the café for internet access for work use anyway, and he decided that the investment in a router - the price of which was minimal enough, under $100 - to provide his customers with internet access was well worth it.

The Chester County Library System began implementing wireless networks in July 2005. Now, all 18 of its libraries offer free Wi-Fi access.

"It was driven by the need to provide better, more improved resources for the public," said Tony Wagner, computer services manager at the Chester County Library in Exton. Use of library computers to access the internet has its drawbacks, with limited time slots that sometimes create waiting lines.

Now people with wireless-ready laptops or cell phones don't even need to set foot in some of the libraries to check their e-mail, as some of the Wi-Fi networks extend signal out into the parking lots.

Another spot with free public Wi-Fi is in the cafe at the Giant Market at 1393 Wilmington Pike, near Dilworthtown Road.

"It's spreading like wildfire," said Sally Cohen, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Cohen authored a study on the growing number of municipal Wi-Fi networks in the country, such as the network in production in Philadelphia, earlier this year.

"The market in general is anchored in California," she said. "It seems that every day a new community announces that they're starting a network. Now along the eastern seaboard we're seeing it as well."

Chester County does not have the option to even consider a countywide Wi-Fi network, thanks to Pennsylvania House Bill 30, signed into law in November 2004, which prohibited municipal Wi-Fi networks in the state. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Kutztown and Montgomery County's Upper Dublin Township, which were considering Wi-Fi when the law was signed, were grandfathered in as able to establish networks.

Even without the ability to create a county network, Chester County residents have plenty of options when it comes to internet access on the go. There are several internet directories that provide lists of the local hot spots, both free and paid, when a zip code is plugged in.

Unlike Artisans, though, not all businesses offer Wi-Fi free to customers. Starbucks and Barnes & Noble both offer Wi-Fi through T-Mobile, which charges $6 per hour, with daily and monthly subscription options.

"You actually stick out a little bit more if you charge for it," Holck said of his decision to offer Wi-Fi to his customers for free. "A lot of people ask how much it costs, and when they hear it's free, their eyes light up. The only flaw is that, if it's free, you could have people outside your place using it. I saw a guy one day standing across the street, holding his laptop, feeding off our signal," he said. "I don't really mind, as long as they're not trying to sabotage anything."