Wireless hotspots, once a novelty, are becoming an expected service at cafes, hotels and other businesses.

On a cold weekday morning, patrons drift into Mix Sweet Shop on the Ashland Plaza to sip some coffee and log onto the Internet from their laptops.

"This is my morning ritual," says Ashland resident Barb Street, a retired audiologist. "I walk up from my house and come here to get a cup of coffee, review my e-mail and read the newspaper."

Welcome to the age of wireless.

A year ago, wireless access in the Rogue Valley was a novelty, something businesses could use to set themselves apart from the competition. Increasingly, however, the quick prolificacy of portable computers has made wireless an expected service at cafes, hotels and some other businesses.

In Ashland, signs heralding the presence of wireless are largely absent. Wireless has become so commonplace many businesses have stopped advertising it altogether.

"People usually assume we have wireless," says Mix barista Leah Westreich.

Other parts of the Rogue Valley, however, have lagged behind Ashland and metropolitan areas such as Portland in the availability of wireless hot spots.

Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent each have their signature coffee shops with wireless. Out in Eagle Point, White City and Gold Hill, the public libraries are among the few wireless hot spots.

Compared to urban areas availability "is slim to none down here," says Medford native Jason Rosendaul, who travels all over the nation selling pharmaceuticals. "In metropolitan areas, there is a bigger demand for it."

Wireless has prospered in the small town of Ashland largely because the business community made a concerted effort to bring it to downtown, believing it would attract more customers and better serve tourists, says Jim Teece, president of Project A, an Ashland software company.

"Wherever you go in downtown Ashland you can get wireless," Teece says. "What that does is create an expectation."

When Rosendaul is in Medford, he connects to the Internet at Starbucks Coffee shops, probably Medford's best known wireless hot spots.

Unlike most of the locally-owned coffee shops, such as Mellelo Coffee Roasters, Starbucks charges customers to connect to the network. A day pass at Starbucks costs about $10.

"One way local coffee shops could be more competitive would be to offer free wireless," says Ashland resident Dan Altman, as he sipped coffee and soaked up some sunshine outside Starbucks at Biddle Road.

It's just a matter of time before wireless hot spots are as prevalent in Medford and surrounding areas as in Ashland, says Altman, who used to design software for Microsoft Corp. "More and more people are getting laptops."

Indeed, U.S. sales of laptops and other portable devices are one of the driving forces behind the spread of wireless hubs. Laptop sales are forecast to surpass those of desktops this year, according to IDC, an international market intelligence firm. The growth stems from consumer hunger for the convenience and mobility of wireless Internet, falling prices of laptops, longer battery life spans and lighter weight notebooks, says Richard Shim, an IDC analyst.

This year, the average price of a desktop worldwide will be $718, compared to $1,078 for a laptop, according to IDC.

Mark Dewey, a Medford real estate broker, carries his laptop to clients to show photos of properties and property values to his clients.

Dewey used to live in Portland, where free wireless was available almost everywhere.

"That's the problem here: we need more free wireless," Dewey says.

One frustrating aspect of wireless Internet is keeping a connection from one place to another.

"It would be nice to be able pull into any parking lot and get online," Rosendaul says.

In the near future, Rosendaul's wish could become a reality.

Wireless connections could become continuous through the use of satellite, a technology known as WiMAX, says Bill McKenzie, spokesperson for Intel in Hillsboro.

Speeds are expected to be similar to DSL or cable and faster than using a cell phone service to connect.

The Oregon Travel Information Council hopes to eventually establish a chain of wireless networks along Interstate 5, so travelers could connect to the Internet at stops from the Washington border to the California border, says Craig Tutor, the council's marketing manager.

The council first installed wireless in 2005 at seven rest areas and state parks as a way to better serve tourists, Tutor says.

Since then, the number of rest areas and state parks with wireless has grown to 10, including Valley of the Rogue rest area and state park in Gold Hill. The council plans this year to double that number to 20.

In most cases, visitors have to pay a small fee for wireless Web surfing at state rest stops and parks. There's no cost when visiting Web sites for the Oregon Department of Transportation, Travel Oregon, KGW News in Portland and Intel. A day pass to visit other Web sites costs $3.99.

In the past year, overall usage of the council's wireless network has increased from about 12,555 hours in 2006 to 20,250 hours in 2007 statewide.

The Valley of the Rogue logs the second-highest usage because people coming up from California often stop there and check the weather and traffic conditions on the Sexton Pass, Tutor says.

Texas and Washington state also offer wireless, and several more states are considering or installing wireless at their rest areas.

"Louisiana in particular after Hurricane Katrina realized quickly if it had had wireless at rest areas people could have used it as they were evacuating to tell their families they were OK — instead of tying up all the phone lines — or as a way to find a shelter," Tutor says.

Evacuees could have even made telephone calls over the Internet to reach their family members.

Ashland resident Lisa Majchrzak, Altman's girlfriend, makes free telephone calls on her laptop using software called Skype.

Paired with a Web cam, the software allowed Majchrzak's 9-year-old niece in Poland to see her family in Ashland open presents on Christmas, including her dad who was visiting from Poland, her grandfather who was visiting from Indiana, and Majchrzak's 12-year-old son.

"We all just gathered around the laptop with a Web cam," Majchrzak says. "My niece had headphones on so she could hear and see everything. It was really fun."

Skype is only a few years old, but millions of people log on at any given time.

In the near future, mobile wireless connections are expected to gain prominence, possibly with a presence on airplanes and automobiles, says Mark Anthony, owner of Wi-FX Communications in Ashland.

Wi-FX Communications, an Internet and cell phone vendor, operates an Internet cafe inside a Vespa scooter dealership at the Ashland Plaza. The company rents out a mobile Wi-Fi unit, a former Rogue Valley Transportation District bus that sends out a 1,000-foot signal for large events such as rodeos or weddings.

Other trends include more mobile PCs, smaller, thinner and lighter laptops with the same functions as the larger versions, and multi-task devices such as the BlackBerry, which include a phone, camera, video, Internet, GPS and multimedia capabilities.

The smaller sizes could make it easier for Olivia Clark, a senior at Crater High School in Central Point, and her classmates to tote their laptops to school.

Some students already use their laptops to type notes during class, Clark says.

"It's convenient to be able to just go wherever you want and get online," she says.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.