More and more travelers are discovering that wireless Internet access eases life on the road. With its quick, fuss-free connections for laptops and PDA's, Wi-Fi is becoming ubiquitous—and, better yet, free. Since Apple first introduced wireless networking equipment, in 1999, the Wi-Fi industry has grown exponentially. Manufacturers sold 45.3 million units of wireless equipment last year, and analysts expect sales to hit 90 million by the end of 2004. The number of access points (wireless communication hubs), meanwhile, more than doubled from 2002 to 2003, to 12.1 million worldwide.
Hotel groups and airlines—such as Omni, and JetBlue in its JFK and Long Beach terminals—have been leading the pack in providing free wireless Internet access. The technology was once limited to private use and fee-based hot spots, but many of the latter providers have found profits from paid access elusive.So savvy companies are now luring customers by doing away with charges.
The failure of fee-based services has also inspired Wi-Fi activists like OneCleveland to push for hot spots and citywide access. This organization, which has already rigged up the Case Western Reserve University campus and Cleveland's main train station, Tower City-Public Square, plans to provide free wireless access in all of the city's public spacesby 2006. In New York City, NYCwireless was responsible for installing no-fee Wi-Fi in Bryant Park and City Hall Park; the group also helps neighborhoods build their own networks. Austin Wireless City equips local coffee shops and restaurants using recycled computers and the no-cost hot spot management system Less Networks, with the stipulation that access will be complimentary. At press time the company had a waiting list of 86 businesses.
Internationally, the ease of wireless access depends on where you are. Wi-Fi in Europe is limited by the high cost of laying the cables that carry the signal. Instead of developing sweeping citywide campaigns, groups like Paris SansFil are creating smaller-scale networks for buildings. In Japan and Southeast Asia, however, Wi-Fi has taken off, especially in cafés and teahouses. One company, Buffalo Inc., has already set up more than 1,500 free hot spots, including Japan's Kansai International Airport and many of the nation's train stations.
TOP FIVE WIRELESS AREAS IN THE U.S.*
1. San Francisco Bay Area
2. Orange County, California
3. Washington, D.C.
4. Austin-San Marcos, Texas
5. Portland, Oregon-Vancouver, Washington
*From Intel's 2004 "Most Unwired Cities" survey of the number of commercial and public access points, calculated per capita.
This fall Lufthansa, which launched in-flight Wi-Fi access on its L.A. to Munich route in May, will install the service on all transatlantic flights from New York. Next up: Singapore Airlines, SAS, All Nippon Airways, and Japan Airlines.