LEWISTON – With the right equipment, people can check their e-mail from the steps of Lewiston City Hall right now.

The same goes for roughly a half block around the Lewiston Public Library. In a few weeks, people should be able to do the same thing from courtyard area of the Auburn Mall – and any area of the shopping center close to the Auburn Public Library’s mall annex.

Both libraries are using state grants to install wireless computer networks that allow properly equipped laptops and hand-held computers to connect to the Internet free of charge.

The Lewiston wireless hot spot has been online for about three weeks, according to Director Rick Speer. Users can connect from just about anywhere in the library.

“There’s one corner of the children’s library where you can’t get a connection, but anywhere else is good,” Speer said. “The goal is to make the entire facility wireless. We’re hoping to have the entire neighborhood, including Kennedy Park, able to connect. But right now, you can sit on the steps of City Hall and do it.”

It’s possible thanks to a $120,000 Maine Telecommunication Education Access Fund grant given to the Maine State Library. Karl Beiser, state library systems coordinator, said he’s made 46 Maine libraries wireless. Another 14 should come online by late November.

Technicians connected a wireless antenna on the Lewiston library’s second floor to the Internet. That allows anyone with a computer equipped with a wireless antenna within range to use the library’s Internet connection. No passwords are necessary, Beiser said.

“They should just be able to walk in and sit down, open up their laptop and detect a signal,” he said. “If they can detect it, they can connect to it and just start using it.”

Speer said the new network should cut down on wear and tear on city’s own computers.

“Our whole philosophy has been to provide Internet connectivity to people that don’t have it,” Speer said. “We do that already with our own computers. But if people can start bringing their own computers and just using our connection, that should save us money – theoretically.”

Beiser said the wireless system can handle up to 10 users at one time. More than that, and the service slows to crawl, he said.

Users should also be aware that the radio signal is not encrypted.

“It’s all just plain old electronic text flying through the air,” Beiser said. “People need to realize that there is software out there that lets people eavesdrop on this kind of signal, so they might be able to get user names and passwords, if the user isn’t careful.”

Rosemary Waltos, director at the Auburn Public Library, said the wireless network there should go online within a few weeks. There are plans to expand the service after the move into the expanded library in 2006, she said.

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