Fast, easy wireless access to the Internet is the promise of wireless hotspots. These hotspots are cropping up in public places like airports, hotel lobbies and coffee shops, making the Internet accessible to anybody with a properly equipped laptop.
"If you look around an airport, you'll see a lot of high-priced employees with nothing much to do," said technology industry analyst Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research for Nucleus Research. "With hotspots, they can be productive while they're waiting."
Industry observers say there currently are about 15,000 public hotspots in the U.S. and that number is growing quickly. But are hotspots ready for prime time? The good news is that, in general, they are. The bad news is that, depending on your hardware and software, they can be finicky to use.
How They Work
In simple terms, a properly equipped laptop connects to the wireless hotspot, which vendors such as T-Mobile and Boingo are installing in public places. From there, the hotspot connects to the Internet. Charges vary widely, but it typically costs $6 to $8 per single usage or $30 to $40 per month for a subscription that provides access to any of the vendor's hotspots.
The key to using a hotspot with little fuss is to equip your laptop with the proper wireless local area network (WLAN) hardware and software, according to Jeff Cornejo, managing partner of Blue Ridge Internetworks, a Charlottesville, Va.-based network consulting firm.
The most essential element is a wireless network adapter in your laptop, Cornejo said. These days, many new laptops come with WLAN capabilities already installed. If that's not the case, however, you must add your own. The adapters plug in either to the laptop's PCMCIA slot or to a USB port and typically cost between $50 and $100.
Adding the adapter is easiest if your laptop uses the Windows XP operating system, Cornejo said. That is because, in addition to the WLAN adapter, software must be installed that enables the adapter to operate. Windows XP automatically detects when you insert the network adapter and, in most cases, will automatically install the appropriate software.
"It's usually the equivalent of plugging a lamp into a wall socket," Cornejo said. He said the procedure is equally simple for Macintosh laptops that use the most recent version of the Mac operating system, OS X.
However, if your computer uses an older Windows operating system such as Windows 98, you must separately install the software. You do that by inserting the disk that comes with the adapter into the laptop and following the procedures of the software's installation program. Earlier versions of the Mac OS also require you to install the adapter's software separately, Cornejo said.
Making the Connection
After you install the hardware and software, the next task is to connect to the hotspot. With Windows XP and Mac OS X laptops, that should require little more than starting the computer.
That's because WLAN adapters and software installed into those laptops automatically look for WLAN signals. When they detect a signal, the software automatically asks via an on-screen message if you want to connect to that network. If you do, the adapter and software automatically perform the behind-the-scenes technical work needed to connect. That work includes recording the WLAN's unique Service Set Identifier (SSID), which is necessary before the laptop and the network can communicate.
By contrast, if you use an older Windows or Macintosh laptop, you'll need to add the SSID manually using the software that came with the adapter. The trick is to find the SSID.
"If you don't know the SSID, you're out of luck," Cornejo said. In some locations, there are signs posted telling the SSID. Sometimes, you'll need to ask a nearby employee, but that doesn't always work.
"I went into a Starbucks once and ordered a vente mocha and a wireless network connection," Cornejo said. "They gave me the coffee, but the person behind the counter didn't have a clue about how to get a wireless connection." Fortunately, he had logged on at other Starbucks stores and remembered the SSID, which is the same from store to store.
Some hotspot vendors, most notably Boingo, provide software that helps older Windows laptops operate like Windows XP, searching for a signal and notifying you when one is found. You can download that software from the vendor's Web site and install it on your laptop.
Ready to Go
The next thing that happens is that a log-on screen appears in your Web browser. It asks you to log on if you already have an account with the hotspot vendor or provide payment information if you don't. After you provide that information, you are connected to the Internet.
However, Cornejo cautions that you must consider a few things before you get to this point. Most notably, WLANs are notoriously insecure nearby hackers can track what you are doing and even access your data. Part of the solution is to avoid sending and receiving sensitive information via a hotspot, Cornejo said. That's just good business practice, he said.
"It's like working on sensitive information in a plane," he said. "You never know who is looking over your shoulder."
Also, you should install a personal firewall on your laptop, which prevents unauthorized access to data. Again, Cornejo said that's something you should do whether or not you use hotspots. Personal firewalls cost less than $50 and typically are simple enough for even technical neophytes to install.
To securely access your company's internal network, you'll need virtual private networking (VPN) software on both the laptop and your company's internal servers. VPNs are complex and must be installed by technicians. However, once installed, using a hotspot from an airport or coffee shop provides the same secure level of access to your company's network that you get when sitting in your office.
Despite security concerns and the occasional technical glitch, however, small business users increasingly are finding that hotspots enable them to be fully productive when they otherwise would be doing little more than cooling their heels.
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