More than half of Wisconsin's Wi-Fi hotspots are now free as consumers increasingly turn to coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses for an Internet connection.
Wisconsin has about 1,300 hotspots where the general public can get online with a wireless connection, according to Wired Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that follows telecommunications issues.
About 800 of those, or 62%, are provided as a free service, compared with 55% nationally.
The number of free Wi-Fi locations has risen steadily. Nationwide, it's up 13% from the first three months of the year and represents the first time that a majority of the locations are free, according to a recent study.
Cafes and hotels are the most likely businesses to offer a free Internet connection. But other locations - including buses and trains - are catching up, according to the report from JiWire, an advertising firm that looked at 77,000 hotspots across the country.
Starbucks, McDonald's and other national chains have switched from offering paid to free Internet access.
"The gain in business more than makes up for the costs," said Eric Dodge, a Wired Wisconsin spokesman.
Yet free Wi-Fi sometimes encourages people to be Internet freeloaders. They occupy a coffee shop table for hours while surfing the Web and drinking one latte, or they use the space as their personal office for the day.
Business people have gone to coffee shops, set up PowerPoint presentations and held meetings.
Yet shop managers say about 85% of Wi-Fi users are respectful of not taking up too much space and time on a single cup of brew.
"We never tell someone they have to leave, but we sometimes ask them to share a table or consolidate some space," said John Walch, president of Carlon Co., which operates 22 Panera Bread stores in Wisconsin.
"The reality is that some people don't realize they have been sitting there for two hours because they're so wrapped up in what they are doing," Walch said.
Panera was one of the first restaurant chains to offer free Wi-Fi. Some managers were skeptical about the benefits, but they have become believers after seeing how Wi-Fi attracts customers.
"It's just the way the world is today. I cannot imagine what it would cost us in lost revenue if we had to give up Wi-Fi," Walch said. "In today's economy and today's marketplace, businesses need every edge they can get."
During their busiest times, some coffee shops set 30-minute limits for Wi-Fi use. Others limit the number of tables with electrical outlets so that laptop users won't dominate the seating area.
At a new Panera restaurant being built in Madison, the company is experimenting with Wi-Fi stations where people can surf the Web without taking space for other customers.
It's difficult to say how much a Wi-Fi user spends at a coffee shop, restaurant or other business, partly because the usage varies widely. But overall the numbers aren't small, shop owners say, and free Wi-Fi will continue to gain in popularity.
"The service is so ubiquitous now, people have the expectation of being able to get Internet access wherever they are," Walch said.
At Stone Creek Coffee Roaster shops, some users refer to their table as their "office space."
"There is a definite customer loyalty from them coming in, getting their coffee and doing some work," said Athena Agoudemos, vice president of the Milwaukee-based chain.
"And there is a sense of community in how often these customers come in," she added.
More than 300 of 450 hotspots in southeast Wisconsin are now free, according to Wired Wisconsin.
Some businesses use their Internet portal for advertising or instant coupons. Some ask Wi-Fi users to complete a brief marketing survey before they log on to the Web.
Others are reluctant to get that involved with the service because of the time and effort required.
Computer users should be cautious when using Wi-Fi networks in public places such as coffee shops and libraries. Experts say you should always treat public Wi-Fi locations as if they're being monitored and not do things such as online banking.
Airports are struggling with Wi-Fi issues.
With an increasing number of gadgets using the connections, including phones, digital readers and laptop computers, they're feeling pressured to offer free service.
Of the nation's 20 busiest airports, 12 charge for connecting to the Internet through their Wi-Fi systems, according to a USA Today report earlier this year.
Airports in Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Boston offer free connections.
Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport does not have free Wi-Fi. It charges $4.95 for a one-hour connection, $7.95 for 24 hours, and $9.95 for a month of unlimited use at all Boingo hotspots, according to airport officials.
It would be very costly to set up the infrastructure to offer free Wi-Fi throughout the airport, spokeswoman Pat Rowe said.
If the airport could sell sufficient advertising to support the service, she added, then it might be offered for free.
"We are open to ideas, but we have not yet found the right business model for free Wi-Fi," Rowe said.
Wi-Fi hotspots in Wisconsin
Provide free Internet service
U.S. average for free service