When owners of luxury vehicles go to Barrier Motors for a tune-up or repair, typical waiting-room reading material isn't the only way to...

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When owners of luxury vehicles go to Barrier Motors for a tune-up or repair, typical waiting-room reading material isn’t the only way to pass the time. The other option is to fire up a laptop or handheld device and surf the Internet or reply to e-mails using Barrier’s wireless Internet connection.

“It makes it much less of an inconvenience when they can get work done,” said Michael Vena, the auto dealer’s general manager, who guesses that 15 people pay for the service daily at four of Barrier’s locations.

The proliferation of wireless Internet access in the form of Wi-Fi has reached far beyond cafes, restaurants and hotels and into laundries, marinas, truck stops, ferry boats, airports and entire neighborhoods.

The growth, in fact, has pushed the Seattle area, from Bellevue to Everett and Tacoma, to the top of Intel’s rankings of the “Most Unwired Cities.” The survey — the third-annual compilation — is being released today.

The survey was conducted by Bert Sperling, the owner of Sperling’s BestPlaces, known for listing the most livable U.S. cities. Intel, which has spent millions marketing Wi-Fi to boost sales of its wireless chipsets, underwrites the project.

Trailing Seattle in this year’s rankings were San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland; Austin-San Marcos, Texas; Portland, Ore.-Vancouver, Wash.; and Toledo, Ohio. Last year, San Francisco was No. 1, and Portland topped the list the year before that.

The survey looked at a number of factors, including the number of free and commercial hot spots (a location with a wireless access point); the number of ZIP codes in the region that had wired broadband available to the homes (which is needed to set up a home Wi-Fi network); the number of homes using Wi-Fi; and the number of wireless devices such as the BlackBerry being used by the population.

The survey, which collected data from Jan. 1 to April 15, was limited in some respects because Wi-Fi is difficult to nail down. Where it exists one day, it could be turned off the next, and while some are detected and listed on the Internet, others go unnoticed.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” Sperling said. “Every city has a great deal of growth, some have been early adopters and others have been catching up. That’s why positions have changed.”

Seattle’s No. 1 ranking comes at a time when the city is evaluating its role in providing broadband to its businesses and residents.

A study released two weeks ago did not recommend that the city build a cloud of Wi-Fi to blanket the area with coverage, an option many other major cities have chosen. Instead, the report favored laying fiber optic cable to the home, a much more costly endeavor.

The main reason, the study said, is that Wi-Fi would prosper without the city’s participation.

The Intel survey underscores that expectation, said Bill Schrier, chief technology officer of the city of Seattle. “It will happen on its own,” he said.

Sperling looked at the number of hot spots a city had per 100,000 residents. Seattle has 24.7, narrowly beating out San Francisco’s 23.4.

Warren Wilson, a Bellevue-based analyst with Summit Strategies, said he doesn’t understand why Seattle rose above other tech-heavy cities like San Francisco, Austin and Boston.

But, he said, there’s been a substantial commercial push here. For years, Starbucks has provided the technology in its cafes through a partnership with Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA.

And in 2003, Cometa announced it would roll out 20,000 hot spots nationwide, concentrating first on Seattle. A year later, Cometa had installed only 300, a majority in Seattle, before it shut its doors.

Although the total number of hot spots in Seattle is hard to pinpoint, a group of 100 University of Washington students participating in a project found 5,225 networks downtown. A majority were inside private businesses or homes, but also many were public — in libraries and cafes.

“Wi-Fi is in its infancy,” said Pano Kroko, chief executive of Seattle Wireless. “We still have very little compared to ubiquitous coverage.”

Kroko’s company is attempting to spread the coverage through a cooperative Wi-Fi model in which people who offer access to their hot spot get access to others in return.

The city’s Schrier said he’s proud of the area’s standing. “This is kind of cool, considering there’s a set of cities, like San Francisco, Boston and Austin, all vying to be at the forefront of technology,” he said. “It is always good for Seattle to come out on top on something like this.”

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com