Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) was one of the first retail chains to offer Wi-Fi Internet service to its patrons. Times have changed, and the rest of the field has caught up -- many of them flying right by the venerable coffee shop with free browsing for everyone. Now it's Starbucks' turn to play catch-up, so all company-owned stores in the U.S. will offer free connectivity starting July 1.

If you need a free wireless hookup before that date, you have to go to McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), Panera Bread (Nasdaq: PNRA), or Borders (NYSE: BGP). The existing Starbucks hotspots cost $4 per two hours, on top of the premium-priced coffee you'll buy just to be polite. A Starbucks membership card will save you the expense, and people who subscribe to DSL service from AT&T (NYSE: T) also get a free pass. In just over two weeks, it'll be a free-for-all.

I'm only wondering what took Starbucks so long. I have long veered to Panera whenever I needed a speedy connection on the go, wondering why Starbucks insists on milking my wallet of every possible penny. And now it's a bit late in the game.

High-speed data connections are seemingly everywhere, to the point where Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T engage in very public spats over whose 3G network covers more ground. Wi-Fi networks get around bandwidth restrictions on phones' data plans, but typically offer little else for your smartphone that a 3G connection doesn't already provide.

And if you need to connect your laptop instead of a 3G-enabled netbook or smartphone, it's easy to get a 3G or 4G mobile hotspot that goes with you everywhere. It's a selling point for some service providers, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is enabling next-generation Android phones to do the same job for free. Starbucks won't stand out very far in this crowd.

Starbucks should have gone free a long time ago, to attract the coffee-shop crowd of students, journalists, and other free-ranging souls going elsewhere to get their work done. But the advantage of free Wi-Fi -- whether at Panera, the Golden Arches or wherever -- has declined. Starbucks' move is too little, too late.

Have you left Starbucks for cheaper pastures, and will you go back when Internet access becomes free? Discuss in the comments below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Google is a Rule Breakers selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.