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Originally published March 19, 2010 at 1:27 PM | Page modified March 19, 2010 at 8:01 PM

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An abundance of free Wi-Fi across the Northwest

A few weeks ago, I explained all the various options to get ubiquitous Internet access via second-, third-, and fourth-generation (2G, 3G, and 4G) mobile broadband networks. The one thing those networks don't offer? Free access. You pay, and quite heftily in some cases, for the convenience of ubiquity.

Special to The Seattle Times

A few weeks ago (Personal Technology, Feb. 20), I explained all the various options to get ubiquitous Internet access via second-, third-, and fourth-generation (2G, 3G, and 4G) mobile broadband networks. The one thing those networks don't offer? Free access. You pay, and quite heftily in some cases, for the convenience of ubiquity.

Wi-Fi, on the other hand, has never been more abundantly free, with tens of thousands of U.S. stores, airports, and other venues providing Internet access often at higher speeds than 3G networks wherever you can find a seat. Outside the U.S., it has been harder to find free Wi-Fi, but that's changing, especially in Europe.

Wi-Fi's biggest problem is that it's not everywhere. But it's generally convenient. Options for free Wi-Fi in the Northwest and across America have exploded in the past several weeks, mostly because of McDonald's decision to go free. But there are plenty of other options, too.

Let's look at what you can get free.

Restaurants and cafes: Thousands of independent and small-chain coffee shops, restaurants and bars offer free Wi-Fi in the Northwest. A quick search for free coffee-shop services in Seattle on hot-spot directories at wifi.com, easywifi.com, and jiwire.com found dozens of matches, including some of the earliest cafes to offer free Wi-Fi — Zeitgeist, Herkimer and Zoka.

Two larger chains provide the greatest quantity of free Wi-Fi. McDonald's, which for years has offered Internet access for $2.95 for two hours, opted in mid-January to convert nearly 12,000 of its stores that have Wi-Fi in the U.S. to fully free.

Some McDonald's stores have posted limits on parking cars and sitting in their booths, but these are apparently enforced only during the busiest times, if at all. No purchase is required.

Starbucks swapped over to a sort-of-free model starting two years ago; it originally offered 30 days of free access (two hours of continuous use per day) after each purchase on a Starbucks Card. The card acts like cash for purchases.

The current deal is an improvement on a more complicated arrangement announced in late 2009 and heavily modified. You need to make any purchase on a Starbucks Card (including adding a minimum of $5 to its balance), and register the card online.

You then receive two hours of access a day from that point on. Registered cardholders from before December 2009 should already have this benefit active.

Cafe and restaurant owners are often of two minds about Wi-Fi. Some, like Zoka's university branch (www.zokacoffee.com/locations.html) expanded and have abundant outlets to serve laptop users. Others, like Victrola Coffee, turn Wi-Fi off on the weekends to promote more talking and less tunnel vision. A few have even removed outlets or put screw covers over them to ensure brief use.

By network: AT&T, Qwest, T-Mobile USA and Verizon subscribers have access to Wi-Fi networks of varying sizes.

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While AT&T doesn't provide DSL or fiber services in the Northwest, the company extends its Wi-Fi network at no cost to $60-per-month laptop 3G subscribers, all iPhone and most BlackBerry users, and some business customers. Those with smartphones can use the access only on the smartphone. (www.att.com/gen/general?pid=5949)

AT&T claims more than 20,000 hot spots in its network, but a good 19,000 of those are at Starbucks and McDonald's, which are, respectively, free-with-registration and free, as described above.

AT&T's network also includes airports, which often have high per-day fees, although Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just went fully fee-free. The network also includes the Washington State Ferry system, which has Wi-Fi in terminals and on most of its routes. (The ferry system's service provider charges $7.95 for 24 hours' access without a roaming agreement or monthly plan for ferry Wi-Fi.)

Qwest broadband customers get free access to AT&T's hot-spot network through a deal between the two companies. Qwest subscribers need to sign up to activate. (www.qwest.com/residential/products/wifi/)

Verizon, which serves parts of Oregon and Washington, includes free Wi-Fi to customers subscribed to flavors of DSL and fiber above the basic levels. Verizon allows use only through Windows-only software installed on a laptop. It includes airport and ferry service.

While T-Mobile has no wired broadband service in the U.S., it includes Wi-Fi access with its smartphone data plans at no additional cost. It's a $9.99 per month add-on for many voice subscribers, too. T-Mobile includes access at airports.

Free airport Wi-Fi takes off: Sea-Tac isn't alone in providing free Wi-Fi to passengers. Airports across the U.S. have reconsidered the fees that have been typical since the first terminals sported service in 2000. Sea-Tac made the break at the end of its most recent contract in January.

Other western airports that don't charge or no longer charge for service include Portland, Eugene, Oakland (Calif.), Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Albuquerque.

For some regular travelers, the extra $7 to $10 for each session or day's worth of Wi-Fi might be worth changing flight segments.

When you have to pay: There's an ace up your sleeve if you find that you can't get access at all the venues you want at no cost: Boingo Wireless. The company aggregates and resells access to hundreds of North American Wi-Fi networks for $9.95 per month. Boingo also operates dozens of airport networks, and the Washington State Ferry Wi-Fi system.

The company requires no contract for service. If you travel irregularly, Boingo, for a month or two at a time, can save connection fees in airports, hotels, and other often expensive venues.

Glenn Fleishman, one of the writers of the Practical Mac column, contributes frequently to Personal Technology.

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