Public and university libraries around the country increasingly offer free Wi-Fi as a way to serve or bring in patrons--but patrons only, please: Based on some research I conducted recently for a magazine article--link to follow in a few weeks--I've discovered that the widely cited availability of "free Wi-Fi" in public and university libraries should be called "patron Wi-Fi." In the majority of libraries I checked around the U.S., using Wi-Fi required a library card (municipal/public) or a student ID (university/academic). In some cases, a Wi-Fi card had to be registered; this is mostly the case at universities.
See Bill Drew's list of Wi-Fi libraries for the details on which libraries are restricted and which are not. And help him continue to improve his excellent list by sending new entries and corrections as policies change at your local library.
I don't blame the libraries for trying to best serve only their target population, but it would seem like there should be a way to allow visitors to have access without compromising the service.
I have often thought that free and for-fee locations could offer a hybrid. For free you can retrieve email (but not send it possibly); use, say, up to 128 Kbps of the local connection, and have access for maybe 30 to 60 minutes with your particular MAC address. For a fee (or as part of a purchase), you can open a VPN tunnel, use SSH, have full access to the full bandwidth, and so forth.
Libraries could offer a similar service. Free for residents, and a small fee--possibly a confederacy of libraries with a roaming plan?--for visitors. Given that many libraries are already locked down with a login system, it doesn't seem a big stretch to add scratch-off cards or other fee-collection systems to offset the costs.
But we'll see. It's possible that totally free and open Wi-Fi networks, like that at the downtown central branch of The Seattle Public Library and across several of the Los Angeles Public Library branches, might rule the day.
Update: Tor Godo of Sesame Networks writes that their company's product is designed particularly for offering guests access in a secure and controlled manner. Although their focus is primarily on corporate guest access, Godo emailed that they are in active discussions with libraries trying to strike this balance. They recently sponsored free Wi-Fi at Access 2004, an information sciences conference held this year in Halifax.
Jessamyn West files this observation about library-Fi, too, in which she talks about the costs of authentication, and why libraries might consider bypassing those costs altogether.