By Kimberly Edds Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A03
BARSTOW, Calif. -- Dozens of parked purple, blue and orange semi trucks simmered in the desert heat at the Flying J Travel Plaza. Inside is a trucker's paradise: $10 for the half-pound carne asada steak with all the trimmings, cold drinks and lounge with a big screen television.
But for a growing number of drivers, the most valuable luxury at the Flying J is the invisible Internet signal that can be found in the travel plaza's parking lot. With just an $80 wireless network card, a laptop and a password, truckers can spend hours surfing the Web, e-mailing friends and filing paperwork -- without ever having to leave their trucks.
Using the same technology found in cordless phones, wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, is quickly catching on in the most unexpected places -- from truck stops and RV trailer parks to fast-food restaurants. Even the Mall in Washington is getting Wi-Fi access.
The 3.5 million truck drivers on the road who a generation ago made citizens' band radios popular are again on the cutting edge.
"Truckers have always been a quiet leader in anything having to do with wireless communication," said Allan Meiusi, vice president of Truckstop.net, which provides the Internet access. "Everyone's so hot about GPS [global positioning system] now, but truckers started getting into that 14 years ago. They were also the first ones to grab on to cell phones."
For the past two months, Truckstop.net has been advertising at truck stops across the country, and more than 10,000 subscribers have signed up since service began in October.
Hundreds of Truckstop.net hot spots are already in place at truck stops and travel plazas across the country and Canada. Thousands more are in the works. The company hopes to open 3,000 locations in the next two years.
With rates as low as $16.66 a month, drivers loyal to the Flying J can find Wi-Fi technology from St. Lucie, Fla., to Post Falls, Idaho. There are 148 Flying J hot spots out there, with more to come.
Sitting in his cab in the parking lot of the Flying J here, Ron Hasse opens his Hewlett-Packard laptop and logs on to the wireless network. Hasse, who owns his own truck, spends his time searching for his next load. Unlike company drivers who are paid by the mile whether or not they are carrying a full load, Hasse is not making money if his truck is empty. So the search is on as he cruises from site to site looking for the highest-paying customer.
Hasse is a minimalist's dream. His truck is his home, office and entertainment center. "I've got my laptop, a refrigerator, a microwave, a TV, a VCR and a DVD player all right here," said Hasse, who spends 11 months a year on the road, waving his hand toward the back of the cab.