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From onions to mustard (gas): meet the nation's largest Wi-Fi cloud

I don't only write this because I am an Oregonian, but Hermiston, Oregon has got Wi-Fi right.Where?

I don't only write this because I am an Oregonian, but Hermiston, Oregon has got Wi-Fi right.

Where?

Hermiston is an agricultural community of 14,000 nestled in the foothills of northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains. Getting there from Portland is not easy. It is a five hour drive out I-84, with much of the latter 90 minutes of that drive replete with steep switchback climbs via curves that seem to double back on themselves. Drive there during frequent winter winds, snow and fog, and you better hang on.

There's another aspect of life in Hermiston that is even scarier. The town sits just five miles from the Umatilla Chemical Depot, where noxious chemical weapons such as sarin and mustard gas that terrorists would love to terrorize with -were made, stored, and thankfully now, are being disposed of.

Hermiston's comparative isolation, stark terrain and proximity to some of the deadliest weapons on earth have combined to drive the need for fast and efficient data communications. Yet because of where Hermiston is, it is not that traditional broadband Internet service providers are leaping over themselves to offer these services.

Enter wireless entrepreneur Fred Ziari, who came to Hermiston and spent $5 million of his own money to build the largest Wi-Fi cloud in North America, some 700 square miles. By W-Fi cloud, I mean a contiguous area in which Wi-Fi coverage is available.

The service is free to ghe general public. Ziari is recouping his investment by eamsn of conracts with more than 30 city and county agencies, neighboring Morrow County, and even Bob Hale's farm. When you order onions on your sandwich at Subway, you may be eating one of Hales products.

"Outside the cloud,I can't even get DSL," Hale tells the Associated Press' Rukmini Callimachi. "When I'm inside it, I can take a picture of one of my onions," plug it into my laptop and send it to the Subway guys in San Diego and say, 'Here's a picture of my crop.' "

Onions can make you cry, but some of the stuff they have at Umatilla could do a lot worse to your eyes if it ever got in the wrong hands. Or even if some of it got loose via a chemical leak attributable to human error.

"We had to find a way to transmit huge amounts of data- pictures, plume charts..." Morrow County director of emergency management Casey Beard tells Callimachi. "All that data is very complex and it's hard over radio to relay to someone wearing chemical protection gear."