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The Definitive Guide to Wi-Fi, By Eric Griffith

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The Definitive Guide to Wi-Fi, By Eric Griffith

ARTICLE DATE: 07.16.08

By Eric Griffith

For the last decade, as wireless networks have grown in popularity, so has the number of hot spots around the globe.
The leading online hot-spot directory, <A href="http://www.jiwire.com/" target=_new>JiWire, lists 215,666 locations as of this writing. Those are just the ones people bother to report. Believe it or not, they're not all in coffee shops—in fact, hotels host the most hot spots, followed by restaurants. With that many venues offering Wi-Fi, it should be easy to find Internet access wherever you go, right? It is, if you know where, and perhaps how, to look. Here are some tips on finding locations, both free and for a fee, unique venues where Wi-Fi may flourish (think: air travel), and how to make your own mobile hot spots on the fly if you've got the equipment, the cash, and the gumption to unwire beyond your home network.
Finding Hot Spots
Finding hot spots is a lot easier if you look before you need one. There are several directories online with hot-spot listings—consult one for where you're going and you can print out a list to take with you.
JiWire is the best hot-spot directory by a large margin, as it's one of the few that actually spent money building a list, and it has full-time employees keeping the directory current. JiWire powers the listings used by several companies, including iPass and Boingo (see "Paid Wi-Fi"). JiWire's hot spots cover 134 countries, and 67,875 of those hot spots, both free and paid, are in the United States.
If you're a serious traveler and use Windows, you could until recently subscribe to JiWire's Hotspot Helper, which provided extra security and privacy at hot spots using a hosted VPN connection and included the entire hot-spot list to carry with you on your laptop. Unfortunately, JiWire's business model over the last year has changed: It now wants to be primarily a provider of advertising at hot spots. The Hotspot Helper is no longer available for new customers, though the company will support existing customers through the end of their contracts. (The online directory is here to stay, of course, since it's how JiWire develops relationships with future advertising customers.) To get that extra layer of security Hotspot Helper used to provide, a good option is WiTopia.net's personalVPN, which secures wireless connections on Vista, XP, and Macintosh for $39.99 per year.
<A href="http://www.jiwire.com/skypebot-download.htm" target=_new>JiWire's Hotspot Finder for Skype also offers search, but it's voice-based—you chat with it as you would with any voice-recognition system on a phone and it'll tell you where hot spots are, listing them by venue type (café or hotel, for example), city name, or ZIP code. It works on any Skype platform, but there's also a downloadable add-on for the Windows XP/Vista Skype client that includes maps. There's a <A href="http://www.jiwire.com/iphone-wifi-finder.htm" target=_new>JiWire Hotspot Finder just for the iPhone as well, but it has to be online, at the very least with the AT&T cellular service, to be useful.
<A href="http://www.anchorfree.com/" target=_new>AnchorFree also has a directory, specifically of free hot spots. Like JiWire, the company is concentrating on offering ads, but it says its directory is still continually updated, mostly by users. It has 20,000 free hot spots listed worldwide. <A href="http://hotspotr.com/wifi" target=_new>Hotspotr and <A href="http://www.wifinder.com/" target=_new>WiFinder are both similar, and all depend on a community of users who send in listings.
In an unscientific hot-spot search in Ithaca, New York, AnchorFree showed five free venues, but I know there are at least a dozen. Hotspotr showed none at all, while WiFinder found just one, at a McDonald's (the city has two Golden Arches with hot spots, however). JiWire listed 54 locations, free and paid.
Ultimately, you want access wherever you are at the moment, and the best way to know for sure is to boot up the laptop (or a handheld, like the Nokia N810 or the iPod touch) and see if a network pops up. But the fastest way to make that check is with a Wi-Fi signal finder. These handheld units can, with the push of a button, tell you if there's a signal in your area and provide an idea of how strong it is.
The cheapest signal finders do this with a row of LEDs—the more that light up, the stronger the signal—and provide no other details. The best signal finders do much more, using an LCD screen to display info on multiple networks, including whether the signal you've found is 802.11b, 11g, or 11n; the name of the network; the strength of the signal; and even what kind of encryption it uses (WEP, WPA, or WPA2). If the network is listed as "open" you can usually sign on—just be sure you're welcome (see "Free Wi-Fi," below). The best of these high-end signal locators is the <A href="http://www.canarywireless.com/" target=_news>Digital Hotspotter HS20, which sells for $59.95.
Free Wi-Fi
If you're in a major city and you can't find free Wi-Fi–even the legal kind!—you're not trying very hard. Wander about with a signal finder in your hands and you'll probably see plenty of networks both secure (locked) and not.
When you do find a network that's open, keep in mind that piggybacking on someone's Wi-Fi network without permission can get you into trouble—even if the network in question is meant to be used for free. On at least two occasions, people have been arrested for using the Wi-Fi offered by coffee shops. The problem is, they used it while sitting in a parked car. The charge in one case was "theft of services." Why? Because the owner of the shop provides the network for customers only, and the man with the laptop never even talked to a barista, let alone bought a coffee. In another incident, it was Michigan's "fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks" law—and in that case the network owner didn't even know the guy was using his network. A cop saw the guy Googling in his car and got suspicious.
So, seriously, stay above board. There's plenty of free Wi-Fi out there to pick from. And it wouldn't hurt the cheapskates among us to buy a pastry now and then from the shop providing the access.
Some national café chains, such as <A href="http://www.cariboucoffee.com/page/1/free-wifi.jsp" target=_new>Caribou Coffee and <A href="http://www.panerabread.com/cafes/wifi.php" target=_new>Panera Bread, go out of their way to offer free Wi-Fi; those two alone account for 1,172 locations in the U.S. (according to a JiWire search). Add all those local non-chain cafés and you'll be hard put to buy a latte without finding a Wi-Fi signal.
Other primo locations for free Wi-Fi in a pinch include public libraries and hotel lobbies. Even hotels that charge guests for access in the rooms often give it away in common areas, sometimes by the pool if you're lucky—and willing to risk a wet laptop.
Wi-Fi Sharing
You may also see some benefit from joining a Wi-Fi sharing service. That means you set up your own home network to give access to others, and in return you can expect access through a virtual network (virtual since the company doesn't actually operate or install any of the equipment).
<A href="http://www.fon.com/" target=_new>Fon is the best-known Wi-Fi sharing network. Buy its specialized router for your home network, called <A class=iAs style="FONT-WEIGHT: normal! important; FONT-SIZE: 100%! important; PADDING-BOTTOM: 1px! important; COLOR: darkgreen! important; BORDER-BOTTOM: darkgreen 0.07em solid; BACKGROUND-COLOR: transparent! important; TEXT-DECORATION: underline! important" href="http://www.pcmag.com/print_article2/0,1217,a%253D229760,00.asp#" target=_blank itxtdid="6476192">La Fonera, to get both secure access for your family and open access for other Fon members (Foneros). You can charge non-Fon users for access and split the revenue with Fon, 50-50. If you don't become a Fonero, you can pay to use the network; getting to Gmail and Google Maps is free, however.
Those shared Fon Spots make up 27,868 of the locations in JiWire's worldwide database, by the way. This makes them the number three ranked location type available, even over cafés (25,861). There are almost 5,000 Fon Spots in the U.S. alone, according to JiWire; only Germany and France have more, but again, that's only the members who register with JiWire. Fon itself says there are well over 100,000 FON community members in North America, mostly in the U.S., sharing broadband.
If you don't want a new router, try the software approach. <A href="http://www.whisher.com/" target=_new>Whisher wants to build a network of shared hot spots similar to Fon, but it doesn't require special hardware. You register your home network as a Whisher hot spot, and using special client software (for Windows XP, Mac OS X, or Nokia S60 phones) you can get access to other Whisher hot spots. Whisher also lets you buy credits, called WiFi Out, that can be used at some commercial hot spots for pay-as-you-go access.
<A href="http://www.wefi.com/" target=_new>WeFi also wants to make a virtual global network of all the Wi-Fi you can find. Literally. Download the Windows XP or Windows Mobile software and it takes over management of Wi-Fi connections. If a hot spot in the area is part of WeFi's database, it can connect you automatically. If it finds hot spots that aren't in the database—your own home network, for example—you simply add them. You can even share your security passwords with others who have the WeFi software, to access one another's networks even if the security is on. The software tracks all the locations on Google Maps. The "buddies" feature lets you see other WeFi users in your vicinity, so you can send an instant message and wave at them from across the café.
Paid Wi-Fi
Free Wi-Fi's biggest downfall is that you can't count on it. It's hard to complain about the shoddy quality of something you weren't paying for, after all (not that it stops us). To avoid the problems of weak free service, pony up. There are three ways to go: pay for it as you need it (pay-as-you-go), subscribe to a service with a hot-spot provider to use its hot spots anytime you want, or subscribe through an aggregator of hot-spot providers.

There are several restaurant, café, and retail chains that provide paid Wi-Fi in all their national (and sometimes international) locations. Here's a quick list for the U.S., with providers' names in parentheses:
  • <LI itxtvisited="1">Barnes & Noble (AT&T) <LI itxtvisited="1">Borders Books and Music (T-Mobile) <LI itxtvisited="1">Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (AT&T) <LI itxtvisited="1">FedEx Kinkos (T-Mobile) <LI itxtvisited="1">IHOP (Wayport) <LI itxtvisited="1">McDonald's (Wayport) <LI itxtvisited="1">Starbucks Coffee (T-Mobile, in process of converting to AT&T)
  • UPS Store (AT&T)
<A href="http://www.att.com/gen/general?pid=5949" target=_new>AT&T is now the largest provider of hot spots in the U.S., with 17,000 locations. It charges $3.99 to $7.99 per "session" (the price and length of a session varies with the venue) or you can pay $19.99 per month to access all those locations for as long as you want. If you're already a home user of AT&T's 1.5-megabit-per-second (Mbps) DSL or the U-Verse fiber-to-the-premises service, you can enjoy unlimited free access at any AT&T hot spot.
These prices don't mean as much with AT&T's newest partner. Starbucks has taken a lot more interest in and control of how its provider hands out Wi-Fi, no doubt a response to the many neighborhood coffeehouses that give it away. The caffeine conglomerate still cares mainly about coffee but recognizes that a taste of "free" Wi-Fi can bring in those latte drinkers. The new plan under AT&T: Anyone with a Starbucks Card making a $5 minimum purchase (or putting more money on a card) just once every 60 days gets free access for 2 hours per day. (Under T-Mobile's control, Wi-Fi access at Starbucks cost $6 per hour or $10 for 24 hours, on top of your Grande Java Chip Frappuccino.)
McDonald's networks are powered by Wayport. A few select devices—specifically the Sony Mylo COM-2 and the Zipit Wireless Messenger Z2—get totally free access at the company's hot spots. Using any other device, such as a laptop or phone, means paying. Access in the fast-food joint costs $2.95 for 2 hours, and you pay at the counter when you buy your fries and McNuggets; the cashier will give you a code to enter when you boot up your Wi-Fi device. There is also the option of paying $29.95 a month (with a one-year agreement; the cost is $49.95 if you want to go month-to-month) direct to Wayport to get access to all its hot spots and wired connections in hotels. The better way to go is to subscribe with a Wayport partner—which is just about everyone, from AT&T to Boingo to iPass.

A true power user of hot spots, a road warrior who travels the open highways and skyways and is constantly in need of affordable-yet-reliable Wi-Fi, should go with a hot-spot aggregator. Aggregation means the provider has a virtual network: It doesn't run its own physical network but makes it easy to access hot spots run by partners. There are two aggregators to choose from in the U.S., and both offer software that makes it easy to link up.
<A href="http://www.boingo.com/" target=_new>Boingo Wireless costs $21.95 a month and provides unlimited access to 20,000 hot spots across North America. If you want to go international, you can pay $39 a month to get access at 100,000 hot spots. Boingo offers a pay-as-you-go account for $7.95 a day in the U.S., or $9.95 a day when overseas. It's cheaper for those who need access just for phones or PDAs to use Wi-Fi with Boingo Mobile, at $7.95 per month worldwide. That plan works with Windows Mobile devices and some Nokia devices, including the N800 and N810 handhelds. Boingo even has new deals with hotel network providers such as Wayport and iBahn to provide access over Ethernet. Subscribers can also roam onto the thousands of Fon community hot spots worldwide.
There's a new aggregator for consumers: <A href="https://www.ipassconnect.com/main" target=_new>iPassConnect Mobility Service. It offers almost exactly the same service that iPass has sold to corporations for years, but now anyone can sign up. Compared with Boingo, it's more expensive ($29.95 a month for North American hot spots), but iPass has more of them (24,000). The cost goes up $20 to use overseas hot spots with iPass. Both those prices include non–Wi-Fi methods of access, specifically Ethernet in hotels, but also dial-up.
Of course, the aggregators have most of the same partners—both include Starbucks and McDonald's, for example—through partnerships with AT&T and Wayport (in fact, Wayport is a partner of AT&T, and manages most of its hot spots!).
Lest you still believe Wi-Fi is only for coffee drinkers and hotel guests, consider all the other areas where a hot spot can be found. If there's a place where people on the road have to sit for more than 15 minutes, there's a good chance Wi-Fi is available.
Airports and Airplanes
Layovers on plane trips mean plenty of passengers sitting and waiting in the airport. Then waiting some more. Business travelers-and Internet addicts traveling for whatever reason-prefer not to waste those precious moments, which could be used for answering e-mail or visiting Second Life. Boingo says figures based on overall usage show that, by a long mile, airports are the number one place its customer get access. (Hotels are a distant second; cafés and restaurants an even more distant third.)
Wi-Fi for airline passengers began in the lounges run by the airlines. Most used to charge a bundle for the privilege (on top of the fee just to get into the lounge), but both American and United have started a new trend: offering Wi-Fi to their frequent fliers, who have certainly suffered enough, as a free amenity.
Wireless soon expanded into entire concourses, with companies like <A href="http://www.concoursecommunications.com/pv_hotspots.asp" target=_new>Concourse Communications (a division of Boingo) offering service at almost every gate in select airports. TravelPost.com keeps a nice <A href="http://www.travelpost.com/airport-wireless-internet.aspx" target=_new>Airport Wireless Internet Access Guide on its site, including color codes to show locations with free Wi-Fi. The list was most recently updated in December of 2007, however, and that might be the biggest rub-airports change plans as often as cheap travelers change planes. So keep that signal finder handy.
Again, almost all of these locations are available at no extra cost if you've got an account with Boingo or iPass. Even in places where aggregators don't have network partners, many airports offer neutral host roaming. That means a provider's competitors can offer services in its airports as long as the two can work out a deal. It's how Boingo can offer access at airport networks run by T-Mobile (including LAX, DFW, and SFO), even though T-Mobile is not a Boingo partner. Some providers, like Concourse and Wayport, are neutral hosts as part of their corporate philosophy.
The top five major U.S. airports with free Wi-Fi, in case you're interested, are Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix-Sky Harbor, and Philadelphia (which is free only on weekends, unless you're a student). Some, like Hartsfield in Atlanta, have so many paid providers that you can pick and choose. A list of just about every airport in the U.S., large or small, with free Wi-Fi can be found at <A href="http://www.openwifispots.com/guide_free_wireless_airports.aspx" target=_new>OpenWiFiSpots. Compare that with the similar list at <A href="http://www.wififreespot.com/airport.html" target=_new>Wi-Fi FreeSpot and you'll have the full Wi-Fi picture.
Speaking of free, starting this month, anyone with an iPhone or iPod touch can get free access to any of the 28 airport hot spots operated by Concourse Communications for 15 minutes after watching a 15-second video advertisement. If you watching another ad every 15 minutes you can continue at no charge for an hour.
The holy grail for the true connected traveler or Internet addict is a hot spot on the plane. It's happened overseas to a degree, but not here in the U.S. That will soon change, maybe for all the airlines, if the trials are successful. A company named Aircell has installed a series of air-to-ground (ATG) network stations around the country to power a service called <A href="http://www.gogoinflight.com/" target=_new>Gogo. The network connects planes in flight to the Internet, via towers on the ground.
American Airlines began testing Gogo in June of this year on flights between New York's JFK and <A class=iAs style="FONT-WEIGHT: normal! important; FONT-SIZE: 100%! important; PADDING-BOTTOM: 1px! important; COLOR: darkgreen! important; BORDER-BOTTOM: darkgreen 0.07em solid; BACKGROUND-COLOR: transparent! important; TEXT-DECORATION: underline! important" href="http://www.pcmag.com/print_article2/0,1217,a%253D229760,00.asp#" target=_blank itxtdid="6476205">Los Angeles. Flights from New York to San Francisco and Miami will get access soon, though it will be limited to the big Boeing 767-200 planes to start. The price is $12.95 for flights over 3 hours long or $9.95 for under 3 hours. Passengers can use it for unfiltered Web surfing and e-mail, but not VoIP. Virgin Airlines will be offering Gogo service at some point later this year on all jets. iPass already has a deal in place with Gogo, so those with iPassConnect Mobile accounts won't have to pay extra.
JetBlue is also actively testing its own ATG network on a single plane, called the <A href="http://www.jetblue.com/about/whyyoulllike/about_betablue.html" target=_new>BetaBlue. Anyone onboard with a Wi-Fi laptop can use Yahoo! e-mail and send instant messages, and BlackBerry users can get e-mail and services. BetaBlue doesn't offer full Web access yet, however.
RV Parks/Marinas
Roaming the country in a recreational vehicle—or even just driving from campground to campground—doesn't mean complete disconnection. The folks at <A href="http://hotspots.wirelesstrips.com/" target=_new>WirelessTrips.com have put together a hot spot finder of "RV-friendly" locations around the country, including campgrounds, rest stops, and truck stops, served up on a Google map. JiWire has similar listings; its list of RV parks alone has 454 entries. Prices vary from free to excessive. <A href="http://www.linkspot.com/" target=_new>LinkSpot is one provider in several parks. It charges $9.95 a day, $29.95 a week, or $49.95 a month.
Generally, you're not going to find much in the way of Wi-Fi on the open seas, but marinas where you dock your boat may offer it. After all, if you can afford a boat, what's a few bucks for some Internet-laden radio signals? California is rich in marinas like the San Francisco Yacht Club, where service from iDock costs $9.95 a day on up to $49.95 a month.
JiWire shows 60 "sports venues" in its database. Most are little—local ice rinks or bowling alleys—but Wi-Fi in such places is nothing to sneeze at if you have to wait around for a junior hockey player or your spouse on bowling night. Spend that time online.
Many major sports venues offer Wi-Fi as well, usually in the expensive seats. But Minute Maid Park in Houston has Wi-Fi throughout the stadium, priced at $3.95 for 4 hours' use during a game. Naturally, AT&T operates the Wi-Fi at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; access to the Internet, as well as to the Giants Digital Dugout software for extra stats and replays, is free. Wi-Fi is also reportedly going to be available in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the Colts play their first game later this year. So before you head out for the game, check the Web site for the stadium you're visiting. It might have details on wireless Internet you can access during the seventh inning stretch.
Wi-Fi on a plane is great, but most people spend more time every day going back and forth to work on trains or ferries. Wireless on trains has gone through ups and downs in the U.S. In fact, many promising projects, most in California, have died off. The reason: It's hard to find a good way to provide effective backhaul-the connection back to the Internet-on a vehicle moving that rapidly and from place to place. At least on a highway, with a 3G card, you're usually near the cellular towers with the equipment, but that's not always true when you're riding the rails.
One recently announced solution involves using Sprint's EV-DO network as backhaul for a Wi-Fi access point on the MBTA commuter line from Worcester to Framingham in Massachusetts. The free trial launched on one train in January and could eventually expand to all 13 commuter lines in the state.
There's still a chance that access could come to the California Capitol Corridor train, which travels between San Jose and Sacramento. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) may be signing a contract with a company called <A href="http://www.wifirail.net/" target=_new>WiFi Rail as early as this month to provide on-train Wi-Fi to thousands of Bay Area commuters. WiFi Rail has already successfully tested its service, which uses something called "leaky coax" to get backhaul. The service involves a coaxial cable along the rails that works like an antenna, even if the train is traveling at 65 miles per hour. So there's hope for train-Fi yet, in California and beyond.
Of course, train stations are another matter: Finding a signal when you're waiting for your train to show up is a little easier. T-Mobile offers hot-spot service at Amtrak stations along the Eastern Seaboard. Up north, <A href="http://www.viarail.ca/" target=_new>VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger rail service, has Wi-Fi at its stations for cross-country travelers moving between Toronto and Vancouver. Anyone taking the three-day cross-country trip can get online at least once a day. VIA's Windsor to Quebec City corridor also has Wi-Fi at stations, and on some of the cars.
Ferries have many of the same problems with backhaul that trains have (and it would be nice to think those problems could be solved with the same technology now going into airplanes). The Washington State Ferries in the Seattle area-which account for 50 percent of all the ferry trips in the U.S. based on the sheer number of passengers-have been trying Wi-Fi on boats for a while now. Most of the ferry service's water routes went online last year. It costs from $3.95 for 2 hours up to $29.95 a month for unlimited use. Because the Wi-Fi provider, Parsons, has a roaming agreement with Boingo and iPass, subscribers of either aggregator can get access to the network during their commute and to hundreds of other hot spots in the city (all those Starbucks!), all for the same subscription price. And the MBTA in Boston recently announced comprehensive Wi-Fi access on all 11 ferries in the harbor. Last year, the service ferried around nearly 1.5 million riders.
We live in a wireless utopia of citywide networks these days. It's true! Sorta.
Wi-Fi was supposed to be the great backbone of this Internet access wonderland, because of its ubiquity in laptops and inexpensive equipment that was easy to install-not overpriced 3G. It didn't work out that way. 3G technologies like EV-DO and HSDPA are readily available, and so-called "4G," like WiMAX, may soon be in many more places thanks to the new, improved <A href="http://www.clearwire.com/" target=_new>Clearwire, backed by Sprint's, Google's, and Intel's deep pockets.
So where does that leave citywide Wi-Fi?
Whatever you call it—muni-fi, city-fi, and hot zones are past favorites—there's no getting past the fact that citywide Wi-Fi went swiftly from promising to disappointing. Bad planning and bad business practices by both cities and providers have led to some networks that barely worked under the demand, and, at the other extreme, over-installed networks with no customers. Sadly, If you build it, they will come only works for mystic baseball diamonds in cornfields.
The situation typically went like this: Cities would plan to work with Wi-Fi providers, giving them access to places to put equipment (like light poles) in exchange for use of the network. Companies originally entered these public/private partnerships assuming that paid users and advertising would be enough to keep their networks afloat. They came to the conclusion (late) that a network could not succeed financially unless the city served as an anchor tenant -using the network for services like public safety or meter reading, and paying for the privilege. The cities, of course, preferred not paying. Now they may have to pay... to buy the networks.
Many companies, <A href="http://www.earthlink.com/" target=_new>EarthLink most prominently, bet the farm on muni-fi. In February, the beleaguered ISP put all its municipal holdings up for sale. In some cases, the cities themselves are poised to take over what EarthLink installed. According to <A href="http://www.muniwireless.com/" target=_new>MuniWireless.com, a site that tracks muni-fi exclusively, Corpus Christi, Texas, may do just that. Same for Milpitas, California. Philadelphia, once the poster child for muni-fi (even before a single access point was installed) has stated it has no intention of keeping EarthLink's network up and running.
<A href="http://www.metrofi.com/" target=_new>MetroFi was another citywide Wi-Fi provider, building networks throughout Silicon Valley, a couple in Illinois, and the big one, in Portland, Oregon. The company's troubles began last year when contract talks with Anchorage, Alaska, and Toledo, Ohio, failed. MetroFi was among the first to believe advertising revenue would be enough to make money. It wasn't. As of May 15, the company planned to sell all of its networks. In areas lacking buyers, those networks will be shut down. In late June, Portland went dark.
Cities like Tempe, Arizona, were among the first to get a big Wi-Fi network, but control of Tempe's network has passed from company to company—and as of today it has been shut down, too.
Of course, not all hot zones are a bust. The IT department of Minneapolis, Minnesota, working with USI Wireless, has unwired 85 percent of the city and has around 8,000 paid customers in homes, with free access in city libraries. Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, Calilfornia; and Austin, Texas, as well as other cities, still have great volunteer community groups trying to offer Wi-Fi in a big way, without any municipal money or involvement. The volunteer groups probably prefer doing it on their own.
Private companies could still accomplish a lot: In May, <A href="http://www.cablevision.com/" target=_new>Cablevision announced it would spend $350 million to install Wi-Fi in areas of New York City, which its 3.1 million Optimum Online cable subscribers wouldn't have to pay extra for; others would. Of course, Verizon tried this before in New York-by turning pay phones into Wi-Fi access points-and failed. It's hard to unwire the concrete canyons.
What does all this mean for your own online excursions? You can't always count on citywide Wi-Fi to be where you're going. Even in cities with well-trumpeted networks like Philly and Portland, there's no guarantee of availability from one day to the next. Big cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston have all talked about it, but though there is city-provided Wi-Fi in select neighborhoods and parks, there is nothing even close to citywide service. (Some cities do have wireless networks for use by municipal employees, such as with automated meter reading and Chicago's backbone for surveillance cameras.)
As long as 3G grows and gets faster, the need for citywide Wi-Fi continues to diminish. WiMAX may replace 3G eventually, though it's barely off the ground here in the States. For now, if you move from city to city with a single laptop, count on the known hot spots or invest in a 3G card from a wireless carrier with a big 3G network, like Verizon or Sprint.
3G/Cellular Routers
It's no secret that you can get Internet access just about anywhere-even in the car-if you've got 3G service. When you plug a PC Card modem into your laptop you can expect reasonably good speed as long as you're in range of a tower with the latest technology, such as <A href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution-Data_Optimized#TIA-856_Rev_A" target=_new>EV-DO Rev A. Move out of range of those towers and you may still get access at lower speeds. These services typically cost $60 to $80 a month.
That's not much help if you've got multiple laptops that need access. The solution: a router that uses the 3G card for backhaul. This could work even in a car or on a train to make your own truly mobile hot spot. You just need to provide power to the router.
The <A href="http://www.junxion.com/product/#models" target=_new>Junxion Box was one of the first and biggest names in 3G routers (the crew for The Sopranos used the gizmos when on location in New Jersey). Plug in a supported 3G card from Alltel, AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon to get backhaul and then use the built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi or Ethernet to connect the computers. But it's not cheap, at $699. For a hundred bucks less Junxion offers a version with Ethernet only.

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Re: The Definitive Guide to Wi-Fi, By Eric Griffith

Fantastic article. Particular thanks for the sections on Aggregators and Mobile Phones as Hot Spots. I've also linked to this article from my blog.

Many thanks again.

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