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With the internet becoming an increasingly essential means of communication and information, people are need increasingly regular access to the internet.

New wireless networking services are spreading across the country, making it easy for your computing device to get its regular internet fix.

 
 
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Wi-Fi 802.11 Wireless Internet

Now you can have a serving of high speed internet access with your latte at the local Starbucks.

See also our review of the Canary Wireless Wi-Fi Hotspot detector.

 

 

Short range wireless internet is now a reality, and available at your local Starbucks. You'll also find it in AA airport lounges and many other places.

It is appearing in airport lounges, Borders book stores, and even in Circle K minimarts and Unocal gas stations.

But does it really work effectively?

Simple and Easy Wireless Networking

Forget the gimmickry of slow (and sometimes expensive) data connection through your cell phone. If you're within range of an 802.11 Wi-Fi network, it will provide a vastly superior internet connection.

In my testing, 802.11 wireless networking worked consistently and perfectly.

There are a number of different variations on the basic concept of 802.11 wireless networking. The most common is 802.11b - sometimes called 'Wi-Fi'. A faster version is 802.11a, but, alas, it is not compatible with 802.11b. Newer versions have a different letter after the 802.11 (eg 802.11g which seems likely to become the new dominant standard) and these are all backwards compatible with 802.11b and usually with 802.11a too.

The wireless networking is usually very short range - commonly the maximum range is somewhere between 100 ft and 100 yds from the wireless hub.

Wireless data speeds are much faster than the rest of the internet connection - for 802.11b they range up to as high as 11 Mbps, depending on the radio signal quality - comparable to your standard wired office network, which probably offers either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps speed. Internet connections, if broadband, are seldom faster than 1 Mbps, and if dialup, are more than twenty times slower than 1 Mbps (ie 50 kbps or less).

Computers use a wireless modem which connects via a radio signal to a wireless network hub. Desktop computers either have a card that fits into a spare slot in the computer or perhaps an accessory connection that plugs into a USB slot. Laptop computers typically use a PC-card (PC-MCIA) card device. The wireless hub looks just like a normal hub, except for one or two short (about 3") aerials.

Windows XP makes configuring a wireless network card remarkably simple. Plug it in, answer a couple of questions, and it is done.

So, the theory of wireless networking all sounds good.

Actually using it

T-Mobile - the people that provide the service in the Starbucks stores and AA (and soon UA and DL lounges and Borders book stores) kindly gave me a trial account to test their Hotspot service.

The wonderfully simple setup instructions consisted of only one single line (ie setting their network name) plus a login identity and password. It took less than a minute to configure my wireless modem, and then I took my PC to a local Starbucks. Turned it on, and, without having to do anything more, there I was - connected to the internet.

This puzzled me - I was expecting a login screen from the T-Mobile service, but instead, I was accessing the internet without logging on! A bit of investigation revealed that my wireless modem had searched for available networks, and in addition to finding the T-Mobile pay network, had also found a free network (thank you, King County Library Service) and so had connected me to the free network! Wow. What could be easier than that.

I drove half a mile to the next Starbucks. This time there were no competing free networks to distract my modem, and up popped a login screen. Ten seconds later, I was connected to the internet.

The internet connection was blazingly fast. I tested the bandwidth several times, and was consistently getting about 1.4 Mbps in both upload and download directions - in other words, (after allowing for network overhead) I had a full T1 of bandwidth, all to myself. Incredible - what a wonderful luxury. Webpages appeared on my screen almost before I'd finished typing in their URLs!

Thinking this too good to be true, I drove to the next Starbucks, another half mile away. After another instant connection, I was again racing through the internet at speeds of 1.45 Mbps, much faster than I ever get normally in the office. Absolutely wonderful. In the month or more of using the service, all around the Seattle area and in San Francisco also, connections have always been blazingly fast and reliable.

Practical Considerations

T-Mobile have equipped every Starbucks with a full T1 dataline, and I've only very rarely ever seen anyone using the wireless service, meaning that most of the time you're not having to share the bandwidth with anyone else. T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar explained

Much like a Starbucks cup of coffee, your experience at the 2,100 T-Mobile HotSpot locations is the same. We use T1 lines because we want the T-Mobile HotSpot experience to mirror what business users are accustomed to at their office. We want to provide enough bandwidth to support streaming video for video conferencing and downloading multi-media presentations, as well as for email and other uses.

There's another reason that Bryan doesn't mention that makes this broad bandwidth excellent. If you're like me, when you're traveling on the road, your time is at a premium. With the wonderful speed of T1, you can rush into a Starbucks, and before you've finished drinking a cup of coffee you've managed to download all your latest emails, send off any emails you've had piling up on your laptop, quickly check for any changes in flight schedules, and have a quick peek at your favorite news website.

The fast speed saves you time and keeps your productivity at a max. Sincere thanks to T-Mobile for avoiding the temptation to cut costs on bandwidth. They're truly offering a deluxe service.

A Deluxe Service - but what about the Price?

Wi-Fi service is generally very affordable.

T-Mobile offer several different pricing plans. Casual users can simply pay 10c a minute for a connection, meaning that you're not making any commitment to monthly costs, and only pay when you actually use (and benefit from) the service. Regular users will quickly find their monthly unlimited plan compellingly good value - $30/month allows you as much access as you want, anywhere in the US, with no restriction on the amount of connect time or data you transfer.

If you don't already have a wireless PC card for your laptop, you can buy one for under $50.

Security

If you're using a private corporate wireless network, it is probably using high quality encryption and is reasonably private, making it difficult for snoops to 'listen in' on your connection. But if you're using an open public connection, then it is theoretically easier for other people to tap into your transmissions.

But the easiest way for anyone to see what you're doing is for them simply to sit behind you and read over your shoulder!

Whenever you're using the internet, at work or at home, wireless or wired, unless you're on a highly encrypted VPN type connection, your data is theoretically vulnerable to high tech surveillance. As such, Wi-Fi is neither particularly more nor less vulnerable than any other sort of internet communication.

Other Wireless Access Services

Semi-random pockets of wireless service can be found all around the country, and the number of these locations is growing, day by day.

In addition to all these 'one off' locations, there are other major service providers rolling out nationwide service. STSN are adding wireless connectivity to many of the hotels that already offer their broadband (wired) connections. The wireless services will be in public areas and meeting rooms rather than in guest rooms. Last week Starwood also announced plans to add Wi-Fi to 150 of their Sheraton, Westin and W hotels this year.

Toshiba recently announced an arrangement to add service to Circle-K mini-marts and Unocal gas stations.

A consortium comprising heavy-hitters IBM, Intel and AT&T are also planning to launch a major deployment of Wi-Fi this year.

The most exciting development of all is in the City of Long Beach where the local council has provided a free Wi-Fi zone covering several complete city blocks, and available for anyone to use. Let's hope other cities follow Long Beach's initiative.

Free Wireless and Warchalking

When wireless networks were first being deployed, many network administrators neglected to add any access restrictions on them, allowing anyone within range to access their network and internet connection. These days, most corporate networks now have access restrictions, but some altruistic people with wireless services in their office or apartment have allowed their network to remain open and accept connections from anyone.

As mentioned above, this happened to me when I found myself connecting to a free service located close to the first Starbucks I visited.

Additionally, a few far sighted companies offer free wireless access as a 'loss leader' to encourage people to visit their store.

To help people know where open networks can be found, the concept of 'warchalking' was created in Britain last year. Enthusiasts put special marks on the walls of buildings where open wireless access exists.

Bluetooth

Another type of wireless connectivity is Bluetooth. But it works very differently and is intended for different purposes. Our special report on Bluetooth explains what Bluetooth is and contrasts it with Wi-Fi and other types of wireless connectivity.

Summary and Resources

W-Fi connections to the internet can give you excellent connectivity and bandwidth, and are almost completely painless to configure and set up on your laptop if you have a modern operating system. The cost of the modem is minimal, and if you travel regularly and can't bear to be out of touch, this is definitely a service you'll want.

More information on T-Mobile's service can be found here.

More information on warchalking can be found here and here.

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Originally published 21 Feb 2003, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

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