Get our your paring knives: your faithful editor offers suggestions for where to Wi-Fi in 12 major cities: A few weeks ago, I did some intensive researching, contacting colleagues across the country; making phone calls to hotels, libraries, and coffeeshops; and scouring my personal and professional memory bank on places I've visited and stayed to produced this 12-city guide to the best Wi-Fi hotspots and facilities. You may disagree with some of my choices: please use the Comments link below to chime in!
I learned quite a lot in putting this feature together, some of which I've shared over the last few works. I can't, however, share the full text of the article unless you're a Business 2.0 subscriber or buy an issue at the newsstand. (There's a code in every print copy that when entered gives you access to that month's content; or you can pay a few bucks online for a new 6-month subscription and have access to the print and online content.)
Best Wi-Fi directory: I have a relationship with Jiwire, but this doesn't color my finding that after reviewing thousands of hotspot listings and factchecking through several hundred that Jiwire's directory is the most comprehensive and accurate. A few other directories are pretty good, but they don't have the scope, currency, or level of detail of Jiwire, and only Jiwire's has first-person accounts of service in a number of locations. I find the integration of Jiwire's information with Yahoo! Mobile to be the best way to search for travel information as a whole, however. I'm also a big fan of Jim Sullivan's Wi-Fi-Freespot directory. (Jim works with Jiwire, too, but I was a fan before that relationship began.)
Hotel Web sites are weak, generally: It's hard to get reliable information from all but a few of the major chains that offer Wi-Fi and/or wired Internet access from their Web site. A call was usually required. Depending on who answered at certain hotels, different answers were provided about cost, availability, and whether people not staying at the hotel could get access in the lobby for free (if the hotel's service were free) or for a fee (whether or not the hotel charged).
A Wi-Fi hotspot is often a wired hotspot: Most hotels still have in-room wired, and their listing in a Wi-Fi directory doesn't mean there's any Wi-Fi on site. However, the vast majority of hotels offering in-room wired or Wi-Fi have Wi-Fi in the lobby and public areas.
Libraries rock! Wi-Fi is busting out all over in public libraries, although the trend seems to be to restrict it in libraries that have the time and technology to build or hire out authentication. Denver appears to be unique in offering its library Wi-Fi for a fee. Elsewhere, it's free whether restricted to patrons or available to all comers.
Coffeeshops and restaurants with Wi-Fi still aren't pushing it: Most of the coffeeshops and other eating establishments with Wi-Fi haven't figured out how to integrate this offering into their overall approach. Most smaller locations lack Web sites. And sometimes even a well-designed Web site with some thought behind it hid or omitted the Internet access--or the charges. A number of eateries stood out with clear and concise information, and broad encouragement to come and eat, drink, and be unwired.
There's a reason for all that for-fee Wi-Fi branding: In many cities, including some dropped from the project for lack of substantial locations, Starbucks, McDonald's, Borders, Kinko's, The UPS Store/Mailboxes Etc., and Barnes and Noble are the primary venues to find Wi-Fi. We omitted these chains from this survey to provide regional flavor and more variety, but those chains combined now have over 10,000 hotspots in the U.S. Business travelers who like the big box stores and the consistent food retail experience won't be poorly served by looking for the M with a circle around it, the FreedomLink decal, or the T-Mobile sticker.
Airports are reaching critical mass: Boston is the most recent large airport to add Wi-Fi, but Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare, and many others are in the three- to nine-month range. By mid-2005, most of the major airports in the U.S. will have some Wi-Fi zones. This may be partly due to the FCC decision that restricts airport authorities ability to control unlicensed spectrum, but it's also the momentum. AT&T Wireless's acquisition by Cingular Wireless will have some impact given ATTWS's operation of Denver and Philadelphia's airport networks, but what that impact will be, I can't yet say.
(Sidebar: AT&T Wireless charges the highest rates for Wi-Fi subscriptions of any US plan: $70 per month. Cingular's majority shareholder SBC now has the cheapest rate of $2 per month--albeit for SBC's DSL subscribers only. How do these two cultures collide?)
Municipal Wi-Fi is expanding in fits and starts: There's a lot of city park Wi-Fi, downtown business zone Wi-Fi, and "come to our building" Wi-Fi all over. San Diego was the biggest surprise to me. (It didn't make the print cut, but should be online later this month.) It's full of free Wi-Fi through several local business consortium initiatives. It may be the home of Qualcomm, and the first 3G city in the U.S., but Wi-Fi has a dominating presence in the downtown.