Wireless Nets Go PublicFree and fee-based 802.11b network access points are expanding, and hopping on them is getting easier than ever.
Got a Wi-Fi network card and a notebook or a PDA? Then you've got Net access--if you happen to be in the right place. And if you're really lucky, it might even be free.
In a growing number of locations, from airports and cafes to homes, wireless access points based on the 802.11b (Wi-Fi) protocol are making broadband Internet access available to anybody within antenna range. Some of these access points (also called APs or "hot spots") are free, set up by public-minded individuals and organizations, while others charge for access.
Surfing for Dollars
Public Wi-Fi networks that require an access fee are typically set up by companies that share revenue with the location's owner. To get on the network, you must create an account with the network operator and enter the appropriate settings (network name and encryption key, if any) on your computer or handheld. If you use several access points, changing settings and managing bills from different operators can be time-consuming. A few companies are working to simplify the process.
Boingo, a service launched by EarthLink founder Sky Dayton, has partnered with several Wi-Fi networks, including the Surf and Sip Network and Wayport, to form an uber-network that, at the end of April, had about 600 locations nationwide. When used on a PC equipped with a Wi-Fi card, Boingo's free software will detect any Wi-Fi network within range of your computer, including free hot spots. Boingo account holders can use the software for easy log-on to fee-based partner sites; if security is a concern, the software offers a Virtual Private Network option.
Boingo bills users by the connect-day--a unit that includes all log-ins to a single location within a 24-hour period (log-ins to separate locations, even during the same day, count as additional connect-days). Infrequent users can pay $8 per connect-day; heavier users can opt for monthly plans costing $25 for up to ten connect-days or $75 for unlimited connect-days.
In my tests with a Windows 98 notebook and an Orinoco Wi-Fi card, the Boingo software easily logged me on to a Surf and Sip access point at a San Francisco cafe; it also detected about a dozen non-Boingo Wi-Fi networks during a 20-minute drive on the highway. However, Boingo's software works only with Wi-Fi cards that support the latest drivers (NDIS 5.1). If you've successfully installed your card on a Windows XP PC, you're probably in good shape, but Windows 98 users will need an Avaya, Cisco, D-Link, or Orinoco card, and you'll have to upgrade the driver.
Access for All?
Joltage takes a more grassroots approach to network building. Anyone with a broadband hookup and a Wi-Fi access point can install Joltage's AP software, which allows access to Joltage account holders. Joltage tracks how much an AP is being used by subscribers and then reimburses member sites accordingly. Joltage, which began operating in late March with a handful of APs, charges by connect time: $2 an hour, or $25 a month for up to 60 hours.
Internet service providers are keeping a close eye on public Wi-Fi networks, which suck up bandwidth without adding to ISP revenue. "While our policy does not prohibit this, it's not the intended use of our service, and we discourage it," says SBC spokesperson Fletcher Cook.
Those who offer free access to their unsecured wireless network face security hazards as well. To address this, Sputnik offers free software that turns any Intel-based PC with a wireless card into a Wi-Fi hot spot with a firewall and other security features. The Sputnik Gateway software also is intended to help Sputnik build a Joltage-like network--it's configured to grant access to other Sputnik Gateway users, and eventually to participants in a planned subscriber service.
Public Wi-Fi APs are still too scarce to be a reliable source of Net access for business travelers. But they are the fastest and cheapest source of public connectivity--and for those who chase them down, well worth the investment of $100 or so in a Wi-Fi adapter.