When it was revealed that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) proposed to provide free online access in San Francisco though an inspired Wi-Fi network, it made sense. The Bay City always seems to be on the cusp of technological change and Google's online advertising ways would fit right into a more connected metropolis.

However, as everyone began to ponder the implications of a free-Wi-Fi town, New Orleans scooped us all. Earlier this week, the town rolled out a connectivity network that will provide complimentary online access in the central business district as well as the celebrated French Quarter.

Well done, Mayor Nagin. Someone get that man some beads!

More than just Mardi Gratis
Tom Taulli recently wrote about the trend toward municipal Wi-Fi. It's neat that folks riding a public bus in Cedar Rapids can go online. I have the honor of living in Coral Gables, Fla., where the city has a free Wi-Fi hotspot in the heart of the Miracle Mile shopping district.

Various retail establishments and hotels nationwide also greet their guests with Wi-Fi connectivity, though many of those wouldn't dare give it away -- for now. Yes, walk into the right metropolitan neighborhood with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop, and you may find yourself blessed with online access. However, what New Orleans is doing is special -- it's canvassing larger chunks of real estate with this wireless freebie.

With hardware donated by Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Tropos, and Pronto Networks mounted on various street lights, New Orleans is opening up a can of Cajun worms that should have been popped open years ago.

Sure, it's alarming if you happen to be a provider of broadband or dial-up access in the area. The retailers that have been charging their patrons for Wi-Fi access -- like Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) -- and even the ones that provide it as a free perk like Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA) -- are going to have to tweak their model to stand out amidst an ocean of free Wi-Fi. Is there anything wrong with that?

It's easy to see why New Orleans was able to pull this off. Sucker-punched by Katrina's devastating blow, it's a noble effort to try to get tourists -- and locals -- back into the hubs of commerce. Any objections from DSL and cable broadband providers in New Orleans would have appeared insensitive, even though the existence of free Wi-Fi in the city is clearly an assault to their own survival in the enabled markets.

That's the way revolutions start, though. The hungriest fisherman may not always land the biggest fish, but when it comes to technology, desperate hands often mold the most brilliant innovations.

Buying the bayou
So who wins if the municipal Wi-Fi trend continues? (And you know it will.) The near-term play may be in infrastructure. Companies like Intel and Motorola (NYSE:MOT) stand to clearly benefit from the buildout process. Tom Taulli also points to consulting services and application software houses as likely winners.

Over the long haul, the biggest winners will likely be the more popular websites. Everything from Google Maps to Craigslist to News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) social-networking site MySpace.com would love to find masses huddling together.

In its grandest application, though, it may find municipalities biting their lip. If a downtown shopper bypasses a purchase because she discovers a better out-of-state deal through comparison sites like Froogle or CNET's (NASDAQ:CNET) MySimon.com, where will the love from local merchants be?

Ultimately, one has to bank on the promise that open markets will create greater wealth for everyone. The Internet was the great leveler of information, and greater accessibility should stir up new opportunities and revenue streams for crafty entrepreneurs. Municipalities will make it work. Making their home pages the landing site for Wi-Fi users and promoting local commerce will help.

The revolution is here. And if you don't pay attention, it'll blow right past you.

CNET Networks was recommended over the summer as part of our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service, and it has risen 27% in just a few short months. Find out why we liked CNET, and what other ultimate growth stocks we like with a 30-day free trial subscription.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz thinks that municipal Wi-Fi will be bigger than you think. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.