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The Great American Roadtrip with WiFi

I'm just back from a roadtrip across the American West, and hidden among all the convenience stores and fast-food joints of roadside America is an interesting trend: WiFi for the masses.

We traveled from the San Francisco area to Denver and back, and the only time I lacked for free wireless Internet access was in our Denver hotel. No need to name names here--it's a fine hotel in a great downtown Denver location--but like most hotels that cater to the business traveler, it charges an obscene amount for WiFi service.

From Lovelock, Nevada (see photo) to Rock Springs, Wyoming and everywhere in between, you'll find free WiFi at motels, diners, and truck stops. It's a common sight to watch a fellow hop down from the cab of his big rig and amble across the parking lot to a table in the coffee shop, where he'll pop open his laptop and do whatever truckers do with the Internet when they're on the road. New motels are in on the game, and so are many an older mom-and-pop motel.

I logged on from a variety of motel rooms, some of them in towns where the nearest CompUSA is a full day's drive away (and that's in country where the freeway speed limit is 75 and the usual speed is well north of that). Fortunately, even with my aging Windows 2000 machine, everything went smoothly--and that's a good thing, because you can't expect much tech support from a desk clerk at an EconoLodge in the middle of Wyoming.

So, this all begs the question: if WiFi access is free and easy all along the Interstate, how come it's $7.95 a day (or more) in major downtown hotels' It's a ripoff, of course, since the cost of providing that WiFi access is near zero. But like most things in life, the price is exactly what the market will bear. The same hotel room in Denver with the $7.95/day WiFi service wants $5 for a bottle of water that retails for $1.25. And the Starbucks downstairs offers wireless access, but only to those who subscribe to a T-Mobile wireless plan. But a few blocks away sits a small sandwich shop offering a free WiFi connection.

What's going on here' It's clear that in places where real people spend their own real dollars, free WiFi is the rule. On the other hand, in places where the corporate expense account rules, WiFi access is priced the same way they price snack food in the mini-bar. The question is, which model will win out' Will the rest of us wind up having to pay crazy prices just to check e-mail and get directions to the art museum' Or will Internet access become an ordinary expectation--just as air conditioning, color TV, and in-room coffeemakers have become'

One hint to the answer might be the scene in the lobby of that Denver hotel. During my stay, I never once saw an empty seat in front of the lone computer in the lobby where a guest could get free Internet access. The message: We Americans love Net access outside the home, but unless there's a corporate sugar daddy involved, don't expect us to pay for it.

--Stan Bunger
Stan is morning co-anchor on KCBS All News 740 in San Francisco.

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