You've seen them at Starbucks, at airport gates and at Borders: savvy computer users surfing the Net without wires. These early adopters of the technology signal a new era for travelers: high-speed access to home or office accounts without having to mess with a tangle of cables.
Called wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi for short, these connections can be twice as fast as digital subscriber line, or DSL, or cable and are accessible in leading-edge hotels, convention centers, cafes and even some McDonald's franchises. (Wi-Fi works by connecting computers via radio signals.)
Like wired high-speed access in hotels, which can be difficult to configure, setting up Wi-Fi connections can be challenging. A tech-savvy colleague spent half a day trying to install a Wi-Fi card on his notebook computer before giving up in frustration.
However, if you've bought a laptop in the past year or so, you may have Wi-Fi capability built in. About 40 percent of the laptops sold this year will be optimized for Wi-Fi access, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. And if you use a Mac, your Wi-Fi surfing will probably be trouble-free.
Ken Smith, editor of the wireless technology zine, www.m-travel.com, recently purchased a Wi-Fi enabled computer and says access has been a snap. "You just turn it on and it's there." Smith has used Wi-Fi to log on at the new airport terminal in Nice, France, at Starbuckses in the United States and France and at tourist destinations from Monaco to Cannes. "There are still some bugs," he says, "but this has the potential of setting the standard for what wireless can do for tourism."
Smith is cautious about how much time he spends online with Wi-Fi because charges add up. As with a cell phone plan, you typically buy a limited amount of time and have to pay for excess minutes. Providers include T-Mobile, Wayport and Boingo.
"The Starbucks T-Mobile access is absolutely worth the $29.99 monthly price," said Chuck Blaisdell, an official with a San Ramon, Calif., church. "If I have a morning meeting in, say, Merced, lunch in Stockton, and dinner/postdinner meeting in Sacramento, I can pop into Starbucks (or even just the parking lot), check e-mail and stay ahead of things."
Starbucks now has 1,200 Wi-Fi locations. Borders has 145, and Kinko's expects to roll out hundreds soon.
However, some hot spots are free and don't require that you sign up for a plan (but you do need wireless capability installed on your computer). Free Wi-Fi providers include mom-and-pop cafes (Starbucks charges, in association with T-Mobile) and such restaurants as Schlotzsky's, a deli chain. Sometimes "free" Wi-Fi access is contingent on buying something; McDonald's recently offered one free hour of Wi-Fi access with a combo meal.
"The incentive is to get people in and it works," says Jim Sullivan, creator of www.wififreespot.com, a directory of free Wi-Fi hot spots. Within three years he expects Wi-Fi to be the main way that travelers log on in hotels, airport lounges and gates, convention centers, even at RV parks and truck stops. Among the free hot spots are New York City's Bryant Park; the Shack in Kapa'a in Kauai, Hawaii; and the Austin, Texas, public library.
Zafrir Benyehuda, a San Francisco programmer, only stays in hotels that offer free high-speed Internet access. "It's a matter of convenience," he says. "I prefer Wi-Fi (to wired high-speed access) which allows me to use my laptop anywhere in the hotel, not just at my desk in the room. But I carry a cable for when there's only wired service."
As Wi-Fi becomes more popular, more hotels are offering service, many of them without fees, in lobbies and conference areas. Midlevel chains, such as Wyndham and Best Western, appear more likely to offer free service than upscale properties. One notable exception is Omni Hotels, which recently announced free Wi-Fi at some of its properties.
What follows is a thumbnail guide to high-speed Internet access for travelers. Setting up can be difficult, but if you want to download image-rich pages, stream music or video, or send pictures or other fat files via e-mail, fast access can be well worth the trouble.
For wired access: Most laptops sold during the past four years have ports for Ethernet cables. Hotels have varied systems for logging on. Some have DSL; others have cable systems that may require downloading software. Tech support varies widely. The cost is typically $10 a night but some hotels provide free access, especially if you upgrade to a floor with business services. For a listing of more than 3,400 hotels worldwide with high-speed access, visit www.geektools.com/geektels.
For Wi-Fi connections: First determine if your laptop has built-in Wi-Fi capability. If you don't have Wi-Fi, you can purchase a networking card _ which acts like an antenna to receive the Wi-Fi signal _ that plugs into your laptop. These typically cost about $60 and are sold at electronics stores. Mac users employ Apple's AirPort, widely reported to be trouble-free. To learn about setting up a Wi-Fi connection, see www.jiwire.com, which has step-by-step tutorials.
After setting up, you can sign up with a service provider (www.wayport.com, www.t-mobile.com) and purchase a monthly plan. But you can connect only at your provider's hot spots; none has yet offered a national roaming plan, though Boingo (www.boingo.com) is attempting to establish a broader network. If you don't travel often you can buy Wi-Fi by the night or hour at hotels and other hot spots and not incur the expense of a monthly plan. The New Yorker (www.newyorker.com), in association with Zagat.com, recently posted a list of hotels and restaurants with Wi-Fi access.
To see how efficient Wi-Fi can make working while traveling, 11 journalists from the British newspaper The Guardian recently ventured down to the resort town of Brighton, the first beach in England to provide free Wi-Fi (www.piertopier.net). The goal was to produce the Guardian's fashion section from the beach via Wi-Fi. After a few hangups, they managed to send the images and get the section out. Then they could enjoy the end of the sunny day in a lounge chair, watching the waves.
"It was something me and my friends had been asking for years," Alex Studd, who set up the Wi-Fi network at Brighton, told the Guardian. "Why can't we go and work on Brighton beach?"
_ Michael Shapiro is the author of "Internet Travel Planner." He can be reached at michaelshapiroyahoo.com.