First Look: Finding Wi-Fi hotspots with the iPhone

The iPhone gives you two choices for Internet access: painfully slow and everywhere, or quite fast and spotty—hotspotty, even. Or, as they’re listed on Apple’s specs page, EDGE and Wi-Fi.

EDGE, a cellular data standard, is ubiquitous across most of AT&T’s voice network footprint, and unlimited use is included in every iPhone service plan offered by AT&T. But it’s slow as molasses, averaging rates just two to three times faster than dial-up modems at their best. (While EDGE averages 100 to 150 Kbps, it can peak to over 400 Kbps.)

Wi-Fi is zippy, as we know, and Wi-Fi networks are everywhere—in your home, at work, in hotzones and metropolitan-scale rollouts in many cities, and at hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots. But it’s not everywhere, and you’re dependent on the speed of the Wi-Fi network’s backhaul , or its connection to the Internet. Also, AT&T isn’t including access to its own Wi-Fi hotspot network as part of an iPhone plan.

Since Apple advertises the iPhone’s Internet connectivity as seamlessly switching between EDGE and Wi-Fi, you’ve always got a backup plan when one form of network isn’t available and the other is. But it’s likely you’ll seek out Wi-Fi by preference.

How to connect

So what networks can you connect to? Not all Wi-Fi networks have the same degree of ease when you want to hook up. You should be able to use the iPhone to access any network that has no security enabled or that uses basic consumer encryption, either WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) Personal or WPA2 Personal.

  • At purely open networks, you would connect and immediately have access to the Internet.
  • At free locations with usage agreements, you would connect, view a Web page in the iPhone’s Safari browser, and agree to the terms of service. Despite the fact that the iPhone can remember networks you’ve joined previously, you will likely have to agree to terms of service each time you rejoin one of these free networks. We’ve found these clickthroughs at places as disparate as the Las Vegas airport, a jury room waiting area, and an outdoor city-sponsored Wi-Fi hotzone.
  • At a home or in an office that uses one of the Wi-Fi network encryption options, you’d connect the first time and enter the necessary password; you would likely choose to store that password. In the future, the iPhone should automatically recognize and re-connect without prompting you.
  • At a for-fee hotspot, you connect, view a gateway page with prices or a login for existing accounts, and enter the appropriate information to join, including a credit card number (virtually always protected with a secure Web link).
  • Corporate networks that use 802.1X, a general standard for allowing per-user logins with a name and password, or WPA/WPA2 Enterprise, a subset of 802.1X, will likely be off limits, and not just because of security concerns. The iPhone doesn’t appear to contain a special piece of software called a “supplicant” required to join these networks; there’s a supplicant in Mac OS X, however, configured via Internet Connect.
  • Free sounds good to me

    Over the last couple of years, the number of free hotspots and hotspots networks has ballooned, as businesses and cities have chosen to offer Internet access over Wi-Fi as an incentive to bring people into stores, downtowns, or lesser-traveled business districts.

    You can find a list of free locations through two resources: JiWire.com offers a comprehensive hotspot directory, but you can choose in its advanced search to show only free locations by clicking the Free radio button.

    Wi-Fi Free Spot specializes in no-cost Wi-Fi locations, and is organized state-by-state and into venue types, like airports (Las Vegas and Phoenix, for instance), and retail stores, like, well, The Apple Store and Panera Bread. The site offers some narrative, too, with details about chains and where to find them.

    Libraries have launched free Wi-Fi all across the world, and most branches now have free access. Some may require you to have a library card, which shouldn’t be a problem if you’re mostly swinging your iPhone around town, but many offer free access to any visitor. The Seattle Public Library, for instance, offers Wi-Fi as an open amenity at its relatively new Central Library, located smack dab in the downtown near business hotels and tourist spots. (No, the Space Needle is not a Wi-Fi transmitter, but it was once a WiMax tower.) A friendly librarian’s Wi-Fi wiki contains a fair amount of information about what’s available by state and country.

    Paying for more access

    You can pay here and there for Wi-Fi access, plopping down $2 or $5 or $10 for an hour or two or a day, but that adds up quickly. If you find yourself using an iPhone’s Internet features quite often outside of your home or other free networks, buying a monthly unlimited service plan makes sense.

    While a monthly plan layers another $20 to $40 per month, depending on which operator you choose, having this service means you’ll have some reliability in finding fast service when you need. And someone to call (from your iPhone) to complain to if the service doesn’t work.

    Boingo Wireless is the best option, with its aggregated network of tens of thousands of hotspots drawn from hundreds of Wi-Fi operators that it resells under one price. In the United States, Boingo has a few ten thousands of locations that cost $21.95 per month for unlimited use. Its worldwide network of 60,000 (soon 100,000) hotspots is $39 (or €29) for unlimited use. Boingo offers software for access that automatically connects to hotspots in its network, but that doesn’t work with the iPhone right now, obviously enough. A company spokesperson said that most of Boingo’s partners also offer a gateway login screen—including the vast majority of airport locations—from which you choose Boingo and enter your user name and password.

    AT&T’s blandly named AT&T WiFi network —formerly the more brand-y FreedomLink—has 10,000 locations in its network, although 8,000 of those are McDonald’s stores. Don’t laugh! Even if you’re not a McDonald’s aficionado, they’re everywhere, and the network signals may be strong enough you don’t have to purchase a Big Mac to get close enough to the transmitter. The locations also include a few thousand stores in other chains: The UPS Store, Barnes and Noble, and Coffee Bean & Tea. AT&T’s DSL customers pay just $1.99 per month for unlimited use; others, $19.99 per month.

    T-Mobile could be a better choice, which is a kind of delicious cognitive dissonance. While T-Mobile is a competitive wireless carrier to AT&T, it also runs the largest “in-house” hotspot network. (AT&T resells access to the McDonald’s locations they offer.)

    T-Mobile now has 8,500 locations in the U.S. covered under a single unlimited plan. These include most Starbucks freestanding stores, airline lounges (perch on a chair nearby if you’re not a member), and some airports, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their voice customers get a break—$20 per month for unlimited Wi-Fi and $30 per month for combined Wi-Fi and EDGE. But their non-subscriber plan isn’t bad: $30 per month for Wi-Fi with a one-year contract and a cancellation penalty ($200), or $40 per month where you can cancel at any time.

    Another interesting choice could be the grassroots Fon network. Fon’s network is comprised of individuals and businesses who choose to share their bandwidth (hopefully with their service provider’s approval). They claim 130,000 locations worldwide, growing constantly. If you are a “Fonero” yourself—a member of their network—running a hotspot you open for free to other Foneros, you can access any similar location. Otherwise, it costs about $2 for a day’s access. Their maps show active locations.

    [ Glenn Fleishman writes daily about wireless networking at his site Wi-Fi Networking News. ]

    This article was updated at 5:18 p.m. PT to clarify information on Boingo Wireless.

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