BellSouth has chosen the Queen City for its first major deployment of public Wi-Fi networking in the region, the Atlanta-based company has announced.

BellSouth FastAccess Internet customers will soon have free access to high-speed wireless data at public locations, or “hotspots,” concentrated in the Center City of Charlotte and surrounding suburbs.

While most online consumers are aware of access to Wi-Fi (short for wireless fidelity) at an increasing number of hotspots, a recent report from Jupiter Research shows only 6 percent have used the service in a public place. Only 15 percent of consumers surveyed said they had used wireless of any kind.

The objectives of the BellSouth trial are simply to test business and consumer demand for public Wi-Fi, large-scale deployment of a public service and technical support of such a network. The company says it chose Charlotte because it is an ideal location for a market trial testing actual consumer demand for Wi-Fi.

“There has been a great deal of ‘buzz’ about Wi-Fi in the media the past several months,” said Krista Tillman, president of BellSouth’s N.C. operations. “But how much actual demand is there, from consumers who would use the service and from businesses who would host a hotspot? This pilot will help uncover that information.”

BellSouth says it will work in conjunction with Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP) to deploy approximately 100 FastAccess HotSpots throughout the city, with the majority being located in the central business district. Other locations will include the hospital district and the South Park area, in areas where people gather, including restaurants, waiting areas and parks.

“BellSouth’s Wi-Fi service will create new ways for people in the Center City to do business, connect and access information,” said CCCP President Tim Newman. “We are thrilled that BellSouth has selected Charlotte to be among the first cities for a market- based trial of BellSouth’s Wi-Fi service and to host FastAccess HotSpots.”

The first 100 businesses serving as hotspots in Charlotte will receive free BellSouth FastAccess Business DSL for one year, equipment and software from Netopia, professional installation and technical support for both the host location and customers, as well as marketing as a Wi-Fi-enabled location.

“As customers continue to adopt and depend on broadband connectivity, the next logical step is to make broadband portable beyond the user’s immediate home or office,” said Maury Margol, director of Wi-Fi strategy and product development for BellSouth. “Participating businesses will be able to, among other things, order supplies and download info while simultaneously providing an amenity service to customers for accessing e-mail and the Internet. Bandwidth is actually divided for business purposes as well as customer use. The realm of possibilities is expansive.”

The pilot will go live in the second quarter of 2004. Customers will be able to surf at Wi-Fi hotspots identified through signage and only need a laptop or PDA that includes a wireless adapter and their BellSouth FastAccess DSL or BellSouth Dial Internet Service username and password.