Will Free Wi-Fi Become the Norm?

I'm a big fan of free Wi-Fi and appreciate it when coffee shops, hotels and other businesses are nice enough to let visitors use their laptops to surf the Web for free. Last year, for example, Starbucks started offering two hours of free service a day for those who purchase and register a Starbucks card.

And soon you'll be able to get Wi-Fi with your French fries when McDonalds rolls out its free service in January. The company last week announced that it will drop its $2.95 Wi-Fi fee.

The move comes just a few months after the world's largest burger chain launched its nationwide rollout of McCafés featuring cappuccinos, lattes and sugary coffee drinks not unlike those on the menu at Starbucks.

While I can appreciate surfing the Web at Starbucks over a cup of coffee or two, I'm not sold on the idea of spending a leisurely afternoon sitting in one of McDonald's plastic chairs over a laptop and a large order of fries. Yet, I certainly can envision popping into a McDonald's for a few minutes to check my e-mail or quickly visit a Web site or two.

Most striking about this announcement is that McDonald's, along with a number of other companies, has put a price tag on Wi-Fi, and that price is $0 per hour. If this trend continues, we could get to a place where Internet access is simply part of the plumbing of our lives.

Already Google provides free Wi-Fi service to people in its home town of Mountain View, California and Google is subsidizing free Wi-Fi on all Virgin America flights until Jan. 15.

Virgin America - along with American Delta, United and AirTran - usually charges $10-$12 for access to its Gogo in-flight Internet service during a cross-country flight. All Virgin America planes are equipped for Wi-Fi. AirTran offers Wi-Fi on all flights departing from the United States, while the others offer it on "select" flights.

I don't expect the airlines to give away Wi-Fi, unless they are forced to for competitive reasons, but many hotels now offer it for free. You can almost count on free Wi-Fi when you stay at a low- or moderately priced hotel chain like Best Western or Red Roof Inn, but you often have to pay as much as $15 a day to access it at more expensive hotels.

In Germany last year, I paid the equivalent of $30 a day for Wi-Fi access at a five-star Berlin hotel. If a hotel doesn't offer free Wi-Fi for all guests, I now ask if there is a way to get it for free. Some hotels will waive the charge if you join their rewards program.

Of course, Wi-Fi isn't the only wireless way to get on the Internet. All of the major cell phone carriers offer wireless broadband access via their data networks, but it's not cheap. The going rate for a 5-gigabyte-a-month wireless broadband plan for PCs is $60 a month. It's worth it if you travel a great deal but not if you're just an occasional user. Verizon offers a 250-megabyte-a-month plan for $40, but you can quickly exceed that amount of data if you use the service to download music or video.

Some netbooks have wireless broadband built in and, in some cases, you can get the netbook free or for a greatly reduced price by signing up for a two-year broadband plan. But before you commit yourself to $1,400 for those two years of service, you had better think about whether you're going to use it enough to justify the expense.

Still, I've taken a cellular modem with me on a few trips to the East Coast, and I can testify that it does make life a lot easier to be able to count on access from virtually anywhere. A few weeks ago I was able to finish writing and then send in my column during a 45-minute ride from Dulles Airport to Washington, D.C. Not only was I able to meet my deadline, but it made the ride seem a lot shorter.

Over the next couple of years, all the major cellular carriers will be introducing so-called 4G networks with faster data rates, added capacity and wider penetration. My hope is that wireless broadband supply will so outstrip demand that they will wind up lowering prices to increase network usage. If the pricing model becomes attractive enough, I can see millions of people adopting the service simply for the convenience of never having to hunt for a hot spot.

In the meantime, "I'm Lovin' " the idea of getting free Wi-Fi access when I visit my local McDonald's next month. Too bad that a Big Mac, a medium fries and a medium Coke add up to more than 1,100 calories.

This column is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.