We live in a deeply divided country. The haves keep getting more while the have-nots are struggling to keep up. Coastal dwellers lead completely different existences from heartland...

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We live in a deeply divided country. The haves keep getting more while the have-nots are struggling to keep up. Coastal dwellers lead completely different existences from heartland counterparts.


I’m talking, of course, about wireless Internet access.


Twenty-eight days of a road trip covering nearly 7,500 miles teach the online vagabond two things. First, we’re living in a free Wi-Fi bubble around Puget Sound. Second, the revolution ain’t happening as fast as anticipated.


Finding wireless Internet was little problem traveling down the West Coast. Portland, Eugene, Ashland and the San Francisco Bay Area offered a host of Internet cafes. Each hotel or motel we stayed in had Internet access as well, although it was not always free.


The farther south we traveled, though, the harder it was to find free Wi-Fi. In Los Angeles, Starbucks, Borders and numerous hotels trumpeted wireless Internet, but you had to pay — usually through T-Mobile USA.


In Pasadena, none of six cafes I checked offered Internet access at all. To the rescue came the public library. Even driving into residential areas and “hookybobbing” — piggybacking on a private wireless connection — proved fairly fruitless. Signals tended to be weak and in all but one case were password-protected. Home Wi-Fi users seem to be getting the message that they should encrypt their networks.


Turning inland toward the “red states,” I was somewhat surprised. Isolated desert burgs like Needles, Calif., and Gallup, N.M., touted free wireless access on motel billboards. But wireless was sporadic.


Wi-Fi was available in our room in artsy Santa Fe, N.M., but nowhere to be found in the bustling gambling retreat of Laughlin, Nev.


Most puzzling was the New Age mecca of Sedona, Ariz. When I visited in May 2003, at least three popular cafes were promising imminent wireless access. None offers Wi-Fi today, and I could find only one free wireless outlet (and another that charged) among a dozen cafes in town. (A new public library also offers wireless.)


I was told there was little demand. One cafe “had it for a while,” a waitress said, “but it didn’t work out.” At Starbucks, the manager said he’d been pressing corporate headquarters for Wi-Fi for months, “but no luck so far.”


In four days of wireless computing at the crowded Wildflower Bakery, I saw only one other patron with a notebook computer.


In the flatlands, Wi-Fi availability dropped off significantly. Our motel in Oklahoma City had free wireless but only in the lobby. The room brochure did promise: “Wi-Fi Coming Soon in All Rooms!”


By the time we got to places such as Little Rock and Memphis, we were getting polite apologies. It obviously wasn’t the first time the subject had come up. But the message seemed to be that wireless was nowhere imminent.


On the upside, the Wi-Fi awareness factor has jumped since the last time I took a comparable Western road swing 18 months ago. Instead of blank stares, I got apologies tempered with a dash of “someday soon” optimism.


One clear trend is that national motel chains are adopting wireless as a lure to travelers. Best Western and Holiday Inn (especially Express) are good bets, and La Quinta seems intent on catching up. Motels may in fact supplant cafes as the predominant commercial free wireless provider for the mobile Webhead. Libraries continue to expand public wireless availability.


One dampener to Wi-Fi adoption may be the maturation of cellular Internet. Cellphones capable of e-mail could obviate the need for Wi-Fi for many travelers.


Or it may be that the average tourist simply doesn’t need — or want — Internet access as much as, say, mobile professionals. Whatever the reasons, Wi-Fi still has its work cut out to approach even a semblance of ubiquity.


Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.