Mobile Wi-Fi slowly, awkwardly starts to come together

You can access Wi-Fi networks on the go in lots of places, though hassles and price gouging remain common

The promise of anywhere access when on the go is old hat, promised but not delivered by all sorts of providers for more than a decade. How long have you heard about Wi-Fi on airplanes, Wi-Fi hotspots wherever you travel for business, municipal Wi-Fi, and so on?

Finally, that promise is starting to surface, as I was reminded in the last month when I traveled to several cities for various events. But the rough spots are still there, and wireless access is still very much a crapshoot when you're on the road.

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First the good news: It is easier to connect via Wi-Fi from your laptop, smartphone, or iPad. In fact, iPads are showing up in traveler circles fast. A colleague noted last week that in his cross-country flight's business-class section, there were two iPads, two iPhones, two or three BlackBerrys, a couple MacBooks, and a Windows laptop in use. Aircell, which provides in-flight Wi-Fi service, says iPads already account for 2.5 percent of devices that access its service.

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I was pleasantly surprised, for example, that the Long Beach (Calif.), Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle-Tacoma airports all offer free Wi-Fi access in their gate areas, as does the JetBlue terminal at New York's JFK; San Francisco International is promising to follow suit soon. (And a tip for travelers: The Apple Store provides free Wi-Fi access, so if you're in signal range, you can save some money. Many McDonalds and Jack in the Boxes offer free Wi-Fi access as well.)

Although not free, nearly all the flights I took offered in-air Wi-Fi access via the Gogo service from Aircell. Hotels have been offering in-facility paid Wi-Fi for several years now, and most airports offer paid Wi-Fi service. I found it in Atlanta, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena (Calif.), Dallas-Fort Worth, and Los Angeles International from a hodgepodge of providers in trips this year.

Not only is Wi-Fi essential for data access, it can be a lifesaver for making calls using VoIP on your smartphone or laptop when overseas or in an area where the phone roaming charges are high. It's also often essential to download large files or access streaming media -- activities that cellular 3G services often prohibit or discourage.

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