Ginger Linkel of Hermiston used to carry her laptop to her son's road basketball games to learn about the opposition, find a restaurant for dinner and so her husband could log on to Oregonlive.com to chat with other sports fans about the game.

Back then, she and her family had to find phone jacks to connect to the Internet. But thanks to a new wireless system introduced in the area today, phone jacks are history.

The wireless Internet broadband system, called WiFi, is five to 10 times faster than a normal T1 line or DSL connection. Because it's wireless, users in Umatilla and Morrow counties will be able to access the system from anywhere in its 600-square mile coverage area. The area wireless Internet access covers is known as a "wireless cloud."

The same accessibility is available in smaller "hot spots" at some Starbucks outlets, airports and hotels.

What will wireless access mean to consumers? Laptops, personal digital assistants and other mobile computer equipment will become the next notebooks and pens. Movies will be downloaded and watched on laptops in real time in vehicles moving along Highway 395 and Interstate 84. Businesses will use it to improve productivity, and area economic developers will add it to the list of reasons why businesses should relocate to the area.

The future is here, said Fred Ziari, owner of ez wireless, the company responsible for the system. And the area is ready to log on.

While the WiFi system was implemented to aid local emergency personnel in case of a chemical emergency at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, the system will benefit the entire area in many other ways, he said.

Ez wireless still must determine a cost for individual user access, Ziari said. Once that's done and the company opens its services up to the general public, the WiFi system is expected to make a significant impact on several sectors of society.

"I think the hand-held computer will become as common as the cell phone is today," Linkel said.

Users could include anyone who uses the Internet: families, government, businesses, schools.

The opportunity is so new, Hermiston School District officials haven't had a chance to learn how it could benefit from the system, said Superintendent Jerry Wilson. While the district already has a large Internet capacity, the wireless system would make it easy to expand, he said.

B.J. Morris constantly uses the Internet to purchase wholesale gifts for her gift shop, Billie's Reflections.

Having the new wireless WiFi system in place will allow her to work faster on restocking her shelves in Boardman with items she thinks her customers will want to see.

"The behind-the-scenes things will be easier, giving us more time to work on customer service, which makes or breaks a business like this," she said.

Kent Madison, owner of Madison Farms near Echo, has not discussed wireless Internet's application to his farming operation, but he can see how it could benefit his operation. "I could see it in our operation where we would be accessing the Internet in our pickup" or on tractors from the field.

Madison Farms already uses remote sensing technology, like Global Positioning Tracking, during its spray and harvest operations.

Morris, who also is director for the Boardman Chamber of Commerce, said she expects many businesses will soon consider the new option a necessity.

"I think if they sit down, sharpen their pencils and figure out what dollar amount their time is worth, I think they'll find that they can't afford not to do it," Morris said.

Wireless access could reduce paperwork and redundancy if people working in the field could input information into a hand-held computer that connects directly back to computer files in the office, rather than having to input written information later, said Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow in Boardman.

While area businesses could benefit, future businesses could be drawn to the area because of WiFi.

Hermiston, which already pride's itself as being a transportation hub, sees the new wireless system as one more vehicle to draw businesses to town, said Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshier.

"Broadband communications is just as important as physical transportation systems," he said.

The WiFi system is giving Umatilla and Morrow counties boundless opportunities, said Hermiston Police Chief Dan Coulombe, who will be one of its first users for emergency response.

"We are limited only by our imaginations at this point," he said.

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Contact Teri Meeuwsen at (800) 522-0255 (ext. 1302 after hours) or by e-mail tmeeuwsen@eastoregonian.com.

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