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San Francisco top wireless hot spot

They might be shrouded in fog and clouds for much of the year, but a new survey ranks Seattle and San Francisco as the hottest metropolitan regions in America for wireless.

They might be shrouded in fog and clouds for much of the year, but a new survey ranks San Francisco and Seattle the hottest metropolitan regions in America.

That's because those areas have more wireless Internet access points, or "hot spots," than other regions in the United States, according to HereUare Communications. The San Jose, Calif.-based company helps entrepreneurs build and maintain wireless Internet access, also known as Wi-Fi.

According to the second annual Hot Spots Report, Internet users in the San Francisco Bay Area can tap wireless connections at 257 public access points, including restaurants, hotels, cafes and airports. Seattle-area residents have 154 public access points. New Yorkers have 107 places, and people in the greater Dallas area have 105 places.

The report found that more than half of the nation's public wireless access points are at coffee houses and restaurants, where patrons frequently flip open their Internet-enabled laptops instead of books or newspapers. Starbucks Coffee and other franchises are rushing to install hot spots for business travelers and others who require 24-hour, high-speed connections from their laptops.

The survey also found that more than one out of three public access points are at hotels, which are incorporating Wi-Fi access to woo corporate conventions and event coordinators. Last summer, Toronto-based luxury hotel chain Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts quietly installed Wi-Fi points in hotel common areas--including conference rooms and poolside decks--at all 56 of its properties worldwide.

The survey did not include Wi-Fi access provided by neighborhood renegades or unwitting corporations. A growing number of enthusiasts are setting up wireless access points that let laptop-enabled neighbors and passers-by access the Internet for free. Meanwhile, people who live near large company headquarters and research parks are finding that they can tap bandwidth meant for companies' workers.

Short for "wireless fidelity," Wi-Fi is predicated on the technical standard 802.11, which requires the installation of a small radio tower connected to the Internet via a high-speed T1 phone line or DSL (digital subscriber line) connection. The radio--about the size of a can of beer--extends the wire line and connects with any mobile devices equipped with mini-radios in PC cards.

Where you'll find Wi-Fi Wi-Fi access points can provide Internet access to anyone within a 300-foot radius of the radio. The cost varies, depending on the location, but it usually runs between $500 and $1,000 per point. The largest conference rooms at hotels need about three or four points. A special sitting room at an airport can get by with one.

Wi-Fi uses unlicensed airwaves, so the airtime is free. Restaurants and hotels love the service because wireless users don't have to tie up hotel phone lines or miss important telephone calls. It's also fast: Most Wi-Fi access points deliver data at least 20 times faster than a 56K modem.

The newest survey shows that the nation's biggest tech hubs--including the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Boston and Austin, Texas--are leading the nation in wireless access points. But many wireless experts say that eventually the nation will be brimming with hot spots, forming a more-or-less continuous grid across America's coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and airports.

"There are the barflies who hang in the cafe and play on the Net, and in any existing location there you'll see five to 20 people using a wireless system," said Roland Van der Meer, a venture capitalist who specializes in optical networking and wireless communications for Palo Alto, Calif.-based ComVentures. "But there are also regional pharmaceutical representatives and high-tech salesmen around the country who need to connect with the office in a meaningful way. If these guys can stop in and get their downloads and grab some coffee, that's really awesome."