How to use hotspots

You’d have to be living far, far away from a Starbucks not to know that Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere these days. Since we last looked, back in March 2004, thousands of new hotspots have come online. Just about every U.S. metropolis is now a wireless hot zone. Even the smallest burgs seem to have one or two hotspots—sometimes down at the local Dairy Queen.

But using those hotspots to get online isn’t always easy. Some spots are free, some charge a fee, and the choice between the two isn’t as obvious as the pricing might make you think. And then there’s the whole issue of how to use a hotspot without letting that guy in the corner snoop through your e-mail messages with his handy wireless packet sniffer.

Find Your Spot

Your first option for finding a hotspot is to guess. These days, you’re likely to find free Wi-Fi just by strolling down the street with your laptop and periodically checking for available networks with free software (such as Alf Watt’s iStumbler ). Here are some likely bets:

> Coffee shops and restaurants: Starbucks isn’t the only national chain offering Wi-Fi. Schlotzsky’s Deli, for example, provides wireless access in its company-owned stores. And Panera Bread has opened hotspots in several hundred of its bakeries nationwide; it plans to eventually turn all its shops into free hotspots.

> Libraries and universities: In locales ranging from tiny towns in Colorado to sprawling metropolises like Los Angeles and Seattle, an increasing number of public libraries now offer free Wi-Fi in every branch. Many universities—such as Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland—have added guest access to their wireless networks. (Check the guest policy in advance: some organizations require that you have some sort of affiliation, or that a patron or a staff member vouch for you; others require a library-card number or an academic ID for access.)

> City streets: Several cities—including but by no means limited to New York; San Jose, California; and Portland, Oregon—now offer free wireless access in downtown areas and public parks or squares.

If you’d rather not rely on the hit-or-miss method, there are several good online directories, such as the Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory, WiFinder, and the Wi-Fi Zone Finder.

But such directories won’t do you much good if you can’t get online. JiWire now offers the only downloadable OS X-compatible directory, and it’s updated monthly (See creenshot). The company also provides the underlying technology for the hotspot locators used by,, Yahoo, and many other sites. (Disclaimer: JiWire sells advertising for my Web site, Wi-Fi Net News, and I write articles for its site.)

Pay for Play

If you travel regularly for business, free hotspots may not work for you. Constantly shuttling from airport to airport, hotel to hotel, and convention hall to meeting center doesn’t leave much time for searching out the nearest wireless coffee shop.

It’s true that many hotels now offer free broadband access. But all too many still charge guests a fee for the service. If you’d rather not pay $10 to $15 extra per night at the hotel, or $8 to $15 for a couple of hours of access at the airport, then con-sider a monthly service plan from a dedicated hotspot service.

While there has been a bit of a shakeout over the past couple of years, dozens of hotspot operators remain in the game in the United States. Only a few have networks big enough to provide truly useful nationwide coverage, but many offer no-fee roaming, which lets you use the same account name and password to access different networks.

T-Mobile and SBC are now the two largest hotspot operators in the United States. T-Mobile, the cellular company, has more than 5,400 wire-less locations around the country, including Starbucks, Kinko’s, and Borders stores, as well as some airports and hotels. SBC Communications has more than 6,000 hotspots in its basic network, including UPS Store, Mail Boxes Etc., and Barnes & Noble locations.

Both providers offer two plan types: a monthly, all-you-can-surf service and a pay-as-you-go hourly or daily plan. These day passes allow unlimited access for 24 hours from the time you activate them and are good throughout the provider’s entire network. Not surprisingly, you’ll pay a higher rate for the short-term plans. (Other providers offer similar arrangements but rarely let you roam across an entire network for 24 hours.)

Just to make things trickier, SBC offers plans with and without roaming. Its own network includes locations that SBC operates directly; strangely enough, it also includes McDonald’s restaurants. (Note that if you live on Big Macs while you’re on the road, you can buy McDonald’s-only service.)

If you’re an SBC customer, you can’t currently use any hotspots on the T-Mobile network, and vice versa. But everyone in the Wi-Fi industry expects that to change in the near future.

In contrast to T-Mobile and SBC, which operate their own hotspots, Boingo doesn’t own any hotspot equipment or locations itself. Instead, it gives you a piece of software that lets you connect at 16,000 locations (worldwide) belonging to dozens of networks, and you don’t have to set up an account for each one. Boingo just released an OS X version of that software.

Striking a Balance

It’s always hard to pay for something you can get for free—but it’s wise to remember that you get what you pay for. The paid sites offer reliability and easy availability, while the free sites offer the obvious bargain. But with the growth of unlimited monthly service plans that cap your expenses at in-network locations, there’s no reason not to opt for both: use a free site when you can, and use a paid site when you have to. Combining the best of both worlds means you’ll never have to worry about finding a connection.

[ Glenn Fleishman is the author of Taking Control of Your Airport Network (Peachpit Press, 2005) and a frequent contributor to Macworld.]

JiWire’s downloadable, OS X–compatible locator will find the nearest hotspot—and you don’t have to be online.

Mile-High Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi has sprouted in some pretty odd locations in the past year, including the Washington State Ferries (in the waiting areas and on board); several airlines (for example, on Scandinavian Airlines and Lufthansa, thanks to Connexion by Boeing); and the Hampton Jitney, a shuttle service that takes Long Island residents from the Hamptons to Manhattan (and vice versa).

The ferries use a complex antenna system to connect to Wi-Fi stations at ferry docks; the planes employ phased-array antennas pointed at satellites, which relay traffic to and from ground stations; and the Hampton Jitney relays network traffic via a cellular data network.

Hotspot Security

When you connect at a Wi-Fi hotspot, all the data you send and receive—every password, e-mail message, and Web page—moves entirely in the open over the network. Any other user on the same network can extract information about you with free and easy-to-use software. But you can take some simple steps to secure your data.

> Use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to send and receive e-mail. This will protect your password and the contents of your messages. Not every ISP offers SSL e-mail, but most corporate systems and all the popular OS X e-mail apps—Apple’s Mail, Qualcomm’s Eudora, Bare Bones Software’s Mailsmith, and Microsoft Entourage—support it. To implement SSL in your particular client, check its Help menu. The dedicated mail service FastMail also offers SSL e-mail, as well as secure Web mail.

> Secure your Web browsing. Secure-Tunnel offers an OS X-compatible service that, for $3 a month, lets you browse the Web through an encrypted tunnel to its servers. Note that you don’t need this additional layer for already-secure pages.

> Employ a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts all data traveling between your machine and a remote server. You can rent VPN service by the month from , or buy the Buffalo Secure Wireless Gateway ($160), which lets you set up a VPN server on your own network.

Shop ▾
arrow up Amazon Shop buttons are programmatically attached to all reviews, regardless of products' final review scores. Our parent company, IDG, receives advertisement revenue for shopping activity generated by the links. Because the buttons are attached programmatically, they should not be interpreted as editorial endorsements.

Subscribe to the Help Desk Newsletter