Surf's up, Portland.

Officials flipped on the city's new free wireless Internet service Tuesday, Dec. 5—turning areas like Pioneer Courthouse Square and several neighborhoods in Northeast into hotspots (at least for computer geeks).

"Portland has a reputation for being one of the most wired cities in the country, and now we're going to be the first completely unwired city in the nation," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

The city-backed service operated by MetroFi (, a Silicon Valley company that manages wireless in 12 other cities, ultimately will expand to cover most of Portland over the next 18 months. While you won't have to pay $6-plus per session to check your email at Starbucks, or buy a double latte to Web-surf for "free" at your local coffee joint anymore, you've still got to learn the new system. Fortunately, we've put together a wi-fi primer (lesson 1, w-fi is "wireless fidelity") by quizzing Saltzman and MetroFi marketing VP Adrian van Haaften. Here's the lowdown:

Where can I get access to free wireless now?

So far, 20 access points (where the wireless comes from) are located around Pioneer Courthouse Square atop light poles and traffic signals. On the east side, about 50 points have been erected throughout the Buckman, Lloyd and Kerns neighborhoods. Each point has a range of about 300 feet.

Let's say I've got my laptop and I'm in the middle of Pioneer Square. Now what?

All you need for access is a wireless card, which comes with most new computers. If you own an older model (pre-2002), you'll have to buy a wireless card at an electronics shop for about $25. PC or Mac? Doesn't matter. The next step is to locate the open network, called "MetroFi-Free," which most computers will do for you. The first time you hop on, you'll have to input a username and your email address. MetroFi promises that emails are kept private.

It's going to go as slow as my old dial-up modem, isn't it?

The new network is actually five to 10 times faster than phone connections—the equivalent of basic DSL. For techies, the network's upload speed is 256 kilobytes per second, and download speed is 1 megabit per second. For the rest of us, that means downloading an iTunes song takes a few seconds. Uploading a big photo will take longer.

If there's a gazillion people logged on, will that slow down my porn, er, iTunes downloads?

Sadly, yes.

Speaking of porn, are any sites blocked?

So far, the service is filter-free, something Saltzman says the city actively supports. MetroFi agrees.

Am I going to get nasty viruses or spyware from so public an Internet portal?

Wireless does have the disadvantage of having other people [who could spy on or infect your computer] on the network. However, your system should be OK if your computer has standard virus and firewall protection.

Will Big Brother (or Mayor Tom Potter) monitor which sites I visit?

Not a single MetroFi techie or City Hall drone will know that you've repeatedly viewed pics of Britney Spears sans panties.

What could go awry?

Like other networks, Portland's wi-fi could crash. The system is linked to a central location, and if that goes down, so does the whole operation. An individual wireless point could also malfunction, although users would only have to walk to the next hotspot.

Who's making money off this? And does this mean I'm going to be inundated with pop-ups and spam?

MetroFi makes its money from selling ads, mostly from local businesses on the Portland MetroFi Web page, which is hosted by Microsoft. The city, Portland Public Schools and TriMet are also "anchor tenants," meaning that they may pay MetroFi for additional services beyond the free wi-fi, although they're not contractually obligated. The city may eventually spend up to $16 million on these extras—such as a fixed DSL line—according to its contract with MetroFi. But the hope is that advertising revenue will eventually cover the entire cost of the service.

Even though pesky ads hawking Boyd's Coffee and Windermere Real Estate, two of the first businesses to climb on board, will run across the top of the page, pop-ups will be negligible. There is a premium $20-a-month subscription service, which eliminates the ads.