Residents in Mar Vista who want to have the convenience of free wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) service that is offered in coffee shops and book stores may now not have to look further than their own neighborhoods.

Through a new community effort known as Open Mar Vista, high-speed wireless Internet access is being provided for free beyond the doors of local shops and businesses and in the neighborhoods. The effort was influenced by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “LA Wi-Fi” initiative that was unveiled in 2007 and aims to develop a wireless network throughout the city to connect residents, businesses and visitors to the global Internet community.

Residents and businesses accessing the service can receive widespread Wi-Fi coverage and share a portion of their bandwidth through the open “wireless mesh network,” Open Mar Vista representatives say. As more community members participate in the wireless initiative, they can improve the coverage and gain access to a network much larger and reliable than they can on their own, the representatives say.

“When you start to share your Internet with your neighbors you’re not depending on one single connection anymore. It’s an amazing concept,” said James Brennan, a Mar Vista resident who has helped spearhead Open Mar Vista with fellow resident John Ayers.

Brennan, who works in digital media, said the initiative is modeled after the “Free the Net” project which has provided Wi-Fi access to thousands in San Francisco. Brennan and Ayers began the project in their neighborhood last year and then met with members of the Mar Vista Community Council and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office to spread the concept to other parts of the community, including at the Farmers Market.

“It’s become a venue for community activism,” Brennan said.

Ayers said the project began as a local social network to allow neighbors to stay in touch and it “kind of grew organically.”

“We wanted to tap into (Wi-Fi) as a resource to keep the community informed and connected,” Ayers said.

The community council recently installed city-owned outdoor wireless antennas along Venice Boulevard to provide open high-speed Internet access to Mar Vista residents. The antennas, which cost approximately $200 each, have a range of up to 1,000 feet, making the Open Mar Vista Wi-Fi network available at no charge.

Internet users can choose from two levels of service — one that is open and free and another that costs $10 per month and is password protected. Asked about security concerns with the open service, Brennan said it utilizes industry-standard security technologies and has a built-in firewall to protect the network from hackers.

Open Mar Vista organizers have also coordinated the effort with local businesses that are sharing their broadband service in the neighborhood. Among the businesses that have taken part in the initiative are the Venice Grind café, Soaptopia, the Curious Palate, Time Warp Music, Good Hurt music club, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, the Coffee Connection and Waconah Construction.

The service is available at other locations including Oasis Healing Center, Valle de Oaxaca restaurant, District Board Shop and Universal Adult Day Health Care, Brennan said. Project organizers are also hoping to expand the service to local schools, he said.

More than 8,000 people in Mar Vista are believed to have already accessed the free Internet service, with an estimated 1,000 users logging on each week, Brennan said.

Farmers Market manager Diana Rogers said the market was supportive of the idea and sponsored two antennas to allow visitors to have the service. The market held a launch event for the program Sunday, May 3rd.

“It’s nice to have something for people who are not as fortunate (to have Internet) as well as a convenience,” Rogers said. “It’s a way to get people out in their community more.”

Brennan noted that Open Mar Vista provides a resource for both “heavy” Internet users and those who do not regularly log on. He and Ayers hope to spread the Wi-Fi tool beyond Mar Vista to surrounding communities such as Venice and Santa Monica.

Community leaders have praised the new initiative as a way to help bring people in the community together.

“If we can try to help get more people connected we can become a more vibrant community,” Community Council chair Rob Kadota said.

Rosendahl said Mar Vista has “come in to its own” in recent years with the dedication of city signs and the addition of the Farmers Market, and Open Mar Vista will continue the progress.

“This is a natural extension of a strategy that will continue to bring Mar Vista residents together,” Rosendahl said.

Information on the Wi-Fi initiative,