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For Sandy Weger of Cedar Rapids, Wi-Fi access is more than simply a convenience.
"The work that I do depends on Internet access," said Weger, 49, who was using the Wi-Fi access at Panera Bread in southwest Cedar Rapids on a recent morning. "Right now, I'm working on three different things before I have to pick up my children at baseball practice."
Panera is one of many national and regional restaurant chains offering Wi-Fi -- wireless networking technology that provides high-speed Internet connection -- to their customers.
As more people use phones, tablet computers, netbooks, laptops and other devices to surf the Internet, Wi-Fi is considered by many to be a necessity.
Iowa has more than 900 free or pay Wi-Fi hotspots or access points, according to JiWire, a San Francisco-based mobile advertising company that compiled Wi-Fi hotpot information. While that number might seem rather high, consider that trendy Austin, Texas, has 575 Wi-Fi hotspots.
Once found strictly in coffee shops, conference centers, hotels, restaurants and other hospitality facilities, Wi-Fi is now available in churches, hospitals, libraries, rest areas along interstate highways and public areas such as Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids.
A September 2011 survey commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a not-for-profit trade organization, found 56 percent of millennials -- those born between 1980 and 2000 -- consider Wi-Fi access to be a necessity. Seventy-two percent of those responding to an April survey by the Wi-Fi Alliance want that access to be seamless as they move from hotsp0t to hotspot, eliminating the need to complete a manual login process.
In mid-January 2010, McDonald's restaurants became one of the nation's largest providers of Wi-Fi access. Free Internet access is available at 11,000 of the chain's 13,000 U.S. locations.
"Free" means what it says, and no purchase is required.
Mike Monnahan, owner of the Blue Strawberry Coffee Co., 118 Second St. SE in Cedar Rapids, said the business has offered Wi-Fi access since it opened its doors in October 2003.
"It's just part of the coffee-shop culture," Monnahan said. "We have customers who use it for business purposes, college students who use it for research and others who use it for whatever they have a need for.
"We have people who call all the time to see if we have Wi-Fi. That pretty much determines whether they will come in."
Monnahan does not impose a time limit on the use of Wi-Fi. While some national chains with locations in the Corridor have imposed a 59-minute maximum, Monnahan said that has never been an issue at the Blue Strawberry, which recently added outdoor seating that will still allow customers to surf the Web.
For some tech businesses such as Encompass Iowa LLC in Cedar Rapids, which was hosting a local area network seminar recently at the Blue Strawberry, Wi-Fi is -- here's that word again -- a necessity.
"Without Internet access, we cannot work remotely," said Beau Barnes of EnCompass Iowa, which provides computer cloud and managed services. "Speed also is important because we need to get things done efficiently between meetings."
"We travel for work, so it's important when we have a couple of hours between meetings that we can get on the Internet," said Jodie Jepsen, another EnCompass Iowa employee. "We're a 100 percent cloud computing company, so we can work from anywhere we have Wi-Fi access."
Hotel chains are finding that guests want free Wi-Fi access. An annual survey conducted by J.D. Power and Associates found guests indicated their most important amenity is Wi-Fi, followed by complimentary breakfast and bedding and pillow choices.
Conference centers typically are asked to provide high-speed Internet access for presenters and free Wi-Fi for attendees.
While the hospitality industry has installed Wi-Fi equipment in response to customer demand, it's also becoming a popular amenity in other organizations.
Wi-Fi use continues to spread.
On a typical Sunday morning, you will find members and guests of New Covenant Bible Church using laptop computers, netbooks or tablets to access the public Wi-Fi service provided by the Robins church. Senior Pastor Bob Westfall offers his sermon notes and PowerPoint presentation online for those who prefer to use their iPhones or tablet computers.
While customers are getting their cars serviced at Billion Automotive, Cedar Rapids Toyota, Cedar Rapids Volkswagen, McGrath Automotive Group, Toyota of Iowa City and Zimmerman Ford, they can take advantage of free Wi-Fi. Public parks -- Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids isn't the only one -- also offer Wi-Fi in many communities, creating an alternative office for those who prefer to work outdoors.
Travelers and visitors to the Eastern Iowa Airport have access to free Wi-Fi in the passenger terminal. The same is true for visitors to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Coral Ridge Mall, Lindale Mall and St. Luke's Hospital.
At Old Capitol Town Center, owned by the University of Iowa, there are a number of Wi-Fi hotspots, both open and password protected. James Bechtel of Iowa City said Wi-Fi access is important to the university community because it is changing the way they use smartphones, computers and other devices.
"It allows people to move and collaborate in many different environments," Bechtel said. "There's a great deal of Wi-Fi coverage both on campus and in the downtown area. Most of the coffee shops and restaurants offer Wi-Fi that is open and free of charge.
"The university's Wi-Fi is a little more difficult to use because you have to have a username and password to log on."
Wi-Fi is not everywhere just yet. It isn't offered at Burger King locations in the Corridor, for example.
A sp0kesman for Beaton Inc. of Cedar Rapids, which owns 19 Burger King restaurants, said the cost of adding a separate Internet feed to be compliant with Payment Card Industry Security Standards for merchants accepting credit and debit cards has delayed offering Wi-Fi in the company's stores.