AT&T will build a city-wide wireless network covering Riverside in California, despite having previously been an opponent of such schemes.

The public Wi-Fi network will cover all developed areas of the 300,000 population city as well as a special service to city employees and public safety agencies on a licensed frequency. Free and paid-for services should be available early next year, according to AT&T.

What is unusual however is AT&T has been behind calls for new laws that block certain kinds of municipal networks - specifically, ones owned by governments. The company now says its position hasn't changed, the market has.

"We believe that the ownership of networks, and the management and ongoing operation, should be left to the professional network managers," said business development VP Carl Nerup. The company is also working on a city wireless deal with Springfield, Illinois, and has responded to a request from Sacramento, California.

AT&T will own and operate the Riverside network, which will be built by MetroFi under a five-year renewable contract with the city. The carrier will use city assets such as light poles for positioning access points, and the city will pay for its special licensed service. Other service providers will be able to buy wholesale access and resell services.

At the same time as AT&T's network is due to arrive, a new bill will come into effect in California that will require any wireless access point for homes or small businesses to come with a warning that strangers can tap into a wireless network that isn’t password-protected.

The bill was passed by the state Senate in August and could be a sticker or a page in the configuration software, but the buyer would be forced to look at the warning before using the device. "There needs to be a level of education and understanding out there about just how easy it is to access one of these systems," says the spokesman for the Assemblyman who introduced the bill, Fabian Nunez.

But some analysts have poured scorn on the idea as an unnecessary state regulation. "To get the state involved with this is ridiculous," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "Don’t they have anything better to do?"

The Riverside network meanwhile will offer a free, advertising-supported service that delivers between 200 and 500Kbit/s, or a service with up to 1Mbit/s for $20 per month or on a daily basis.

AT&T has changed its tune because the legislative fight against municipal networks has failed in most parts of the US, according to one observer. "They decided, you know, 'If you can't beat them, join them,'" said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com.