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.
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 Intel.com, USAToday.com, 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.