With laptop computers and smart phones increasingly becoming basic appendages for many people, businesses and cities are scrambling to offer more ways to access the Internet for free.
Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of sites in the Valley -- coffee houses, restaurants, hotels, bookstores, libraries and even cities -- now offer free Wi-Fi, or wireless Internet access, as a convenience to customers.
"There's no doubt, our business has picked up since we started free Wi-Fi," said Paige LaMattina, a barista at The Revue, a cafe in Fresno's Tower District. "We've had it for maybe three years, and there are a lot of people who use it."
Nationally, free Wi-Fi got a huge shot in the arm when fast-food giant McDonald's stopped charging for Internet access at about 11,500 of its U.S. restaurants.
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McDonald's move Jan. 15 instantly added 57 free Wi-Fi hot spots in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties where customers can check e-mail, browse the Web or update their Facebook status while sipping coffee, munching a snack or just sitting around.
It also opens a second front in a premium-coffee war between the Golden Arches and Starbucks -- a battle for the hearts, stomachs and keyboards of customers. Starbucks has 54 coffee shops in the four-county region that offer Wi-Fi.
Industry analysts and customers alike suggest free wireless access is becoming so common at some types of businesses that those who don't offer it are likely to find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Increasingly, "people not only expect Wi-Fi, but they expect it to be free," said Frank Dickson, vice president of research for In-Stat, an Internet industry research firm in Arizona.
Dickson said he believes competition will continue to spread Wi-Fi beyond coffeehouses and hotels into more types of venues, including shopping malls, airports and bus stations. "You have to think of places where people are compelled to sit and wait," he said.
Another industry researcher, Philip Solis of ABI Research in New York, said Wi-Fi is a way for all kinds of businesses to increase their value to customers.
Solis estimated there are about 90,000 commercial Wi-Fi hot spots in the U.S. About 10,000 of them are in California.
And to a growing degree, more customers see Wi-Fi as a make-or-break factor in deciding which businesses to patronize when they want or need to be connected away from home.
"It's definitely important to me," said Edward Rodriguez, a Fresno real-estate agent who was working on his laptop computer in a booth at The Revue. "As more places offer Wi-Fi, it makes it easier for me to be mobile. I figure out where the hot spots are, and it really dictates where I go."
Cellular phone companies offer Internet access in their coverage areas. But that access can be slow and expensive compared to Wi-Fi, analyst Dickson said.
"I have a Blackberry, and that's fine for checking e-mail and simple messages," Dickson said. "But when I go to do something serious, I start looking for Wi-Fi because the bandwidth difference is significant."
Businesses aren't the only ones using Wi-Fi to attract people. More than 350 cities and counties across the country -- including Fresno and Clovis -- have dipped their toes into the wireless waters offering free access to residents.
Free Wi-Fi service offered in Clovis for a little more than a year covers several blocks of Pollasky Avenue in the city's Old Town district.
"We wanted to have something downtown where people at events could have Internet access" and to increase business, said Assistant City Manager John Holt. Some Old Town merchants have actively promoted its availability to customers, Holt said, and it continues to grow in popularity.
In the past month, the Clovis hot spots have been accessed by about 250 wireless devices, said Jesse Velez, the city's information technology manager.
Fresno also offers free Wi-Fi in parts of downtown. Coverage is available on Kern Street from N Street to Chukchansi Park and on the Fulton Mall between Inyo and Fresno streets.
Officials say it appears to be paying off. In just a one-week period last year, for example, more than 550 unique connections were reported on the Kern Street Wi-Fi system.
Other hot spots are in and around Fresno City Hall and the Fresno Memorial Auditorium, said Bryon Horn, Fresno's computer services manager.
Carolyn Hogg, the city's chief information officer, said the cost is negligible. While officials touted the system in 2006 as a way to attract people to the downtown baseball stadium and the Fulton Mall, "the hot spots aren't anything beyond what the city needed to do anyway [for city workers]," she said. "There's been no additional cost to open it to the public."
Paid Wi-Fi service has also been available at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, but soon that service will be free to travelers, Hogg said.
Both Fresno and Clovis explored the potential for citywide Wi-Fi networks, but those plans were abandoned because the costs were prohibitive.
"They wanted a few million dollars to put something like that in," Horn said.
Costs for widespread networks have also doomed some city, county and regional Wi-Fi plans across the country. Muniwireless.com, a Web site that monitors Internet access programs by cities around the world, reports that nearly 50 communities have abandoned Wi-Fi efforts over the past two years.
But the explosion of Wi-Fi and the emergence of WiMax -- which sends a broadband signal over greater distances -- means wireless Internet access will continue to grow, and so will the kinds of equipment people can use to get it.
What started out just a few years ago with laptop computers equipped for Wi-Fi has evolved into smaller and smaller equipment, used for business and recreation. "The number of devices is growing exponentially," Dickson said.
In-Stat predicts that shipments of Wi-Fi enabled entertainment devices -- including cameras, game sets and music players -- will grow from about 109 million last year to more than 177 million in 2013.
"Leisure users do not often carry a laptop, [but] they do have Wi-Fi-enabled handhelds," Dickson said. Not only do more smart phones like Blackberries, iPhones and Palms come with Wi-Fi capability, "it's getting to the point where every handheld music player and every handheld gaming device will have a Wi-Fi chip in it."