Everyone who regularly uses a laptop computer should by now be familiar with the concept of a WiFi hotspot, which is any physical location on the earth that offers a wireless connection to the Internet. By definition, that would include any household with a wireless network. But the term is typically applied only to public locations, such as a local library or a coffee shop.
Demand for wireless Internet access continues to grow, in lockstep with nonstop growth in the use of laptops and other electronic devices whose owners want to be able to connect to the Web anywhere, at any time. In response to this demand, commercial and government organizations have made available more and more hotspots — some on a paid basis (such as in airports), others on a free or nearly free basis (such as in municipal libraries), and the rest somewhere in between (such as coffee shops that require a minimum purchase to access their WiFi network).
At this time, the United States and Europe together possess the bulk of WiFi hotspots. However, Asia is currently seeing the fastest increasing rates — especially in China — and is expected to catch up with and surpass North America sometime after 2010. (This parallels the overall economic health of each major region, with North America and Europe stagnating, while Asian economies maintain their lead in growth, as well as their prospects for the future.) On a global basis, the total number of hotspots succeeded 100,000 in the latter part of 2005, according to market research firms, and has continued to increase since then. That number is now fast approaching a quarter million, according to JiWire (more on that company below).
These trends will most likely continue, as more virtual road warriors arm themselves with laptops, subnotebooks, PDAs, and other mobile devices essential for staying connected — for personal use or business. By the same token, a wide range of commercial and noncommercial organizations are learning how they can attract the wired generation into their coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, libraries, and even railway stations and trains. This will probably spill over into passenger airlines, once the technical and safety hurdles have been overcome.
Yet despite the encouraging proliferation of hotspots throughout the United States, during the early years of wireless technology, they were oftentimes difficult to locate. Fortunately, there are countless resources available for locating WiFi hotspots in your own area, as well as in other parts of America and other countries that you might be visiting in the near future. I will explore some of these resources, so you can quickly connect your laptop, PDA, or other wireless device, with minimum hassle and expense.
"X" Marks the Hotspot
WiFi Finder lists hundreds of thousands of hotspots in 134 countries. For any particular country, you can search by city and even ZIP code. The service is offered by JiWire, a WiFi advertising network that was one of the first to offer online WiFi search functionality. You can even limit your search to free hotspots only; that is the default setting for any new search.
As a test, I searched for free hotspots in my own ZIP code, and found three of them — two restaurants and one hotel. Clicking on the link for the hotel, JiWire's site displayed the hotel's address and phone number, with further links, including one for the hotel's location within Google Maps. More useful is how the site lists the connection options for that particular hotspot — in this case, iPass, Boingo, and EthoStream.
AnchorFree has a similar service, much more tightly connected with Google Maps.
If you don't mind limiting your search to metropolitan areas within the United States, then check out Andre Lewis's Hotspotr. As of this writing, it tracks 9353 spots in 2356 US cities. It allows you to search by city, address, or ZIP code. Its interface is far more map-oriented than JiWire's WiFi Finder, with every listing page — even the home page — leveraging Google Maps, thereby providing a more geographic perspective on the locations of hotspots. The service also displays the total number of hotspots for each major city. According to its calculations, Austin, Texas is the most wired city in the United States, clocking in at 329 spots. Atlanta, Georgia is not far behind, with 311. These two easily outpace the rest of the pack.
Hotspotr offers some valuable features not seen in many other similar WiFi search sites. Users can rate every hotspot by six criteria: overall rating, wireless quality, food/drink, electrical outlet availability, and how amenable the place is for working and for socializing. Each listing page states whether the WiFi access is free or paid, the types of foods offered (if any), the hours of operation, and a brief summary of the location's business.
If your travel plans require you to spend any significant amount of time in airports, then before you take off, let your fingers fly over to TravelPost.com's Airport Wireless Internet Access Guide, which lists airports alphabetically by city name, and shows the hourly, daily, and monthly charges, if any, for WiFi access. Some entries also contain very brief notes.
"Free" by Force
Most WiFi hotspots can be used at no charge, or, at a minimum, for the cost of a cup of coffee, literally. Nonetheless, it has not always been this way. The percentage of hotspots requiring some sort of nontrivial payment, was greater years ago, when businesses were oftentimes looking to recover the costs of installing and maintaining WiFi networks in their establishments, and cities were setting up municipal networks, many of which were available only to paying residents.
At the same time, some wireless enthusiasts made every effort to use these non-free WiFi resources, but without paying. In the case of WiFi regions set up in public spaces, various methods were devised and discovered for tapping into networks whose owners and administrators considered them to be completely secure. In the case of networks operated in residential areas, freeloaders would drive through neighborhoods, testing the airwaves for WiFi signal strength, in search of unprotected networks — of which there were far too many. This activity, known as "wardriving", has declined in recent years, as more free hotspots have been made available, more computer users have learned to lock down their wireless networks, and authorities have stiffened penalties against what they consider to be theft of network resources owned by others.
But the ingenuity and persistence of wardrivers continues apace, as evidenced by the wide range of hardware and software utilities that can be used for detecting and tapping into WiFi networks of all varieties. There is even at least one device designed to "liberate" paid hotspots — the Wifi Liberator, which is a toolkit that runs on Mac OSX laptops.
Even if you personally have no interest in accessing someone else's WiFi network, at least you should be aware of the dangers if you have such a network of your own at home. You should implement all of the prescribed security instructions for locking down your network — at least to prevent unauthorized use that could get you into trouble with the authorities or, more likely, the big media companies, if someone uses your network for downloading or uploading copyrighted material. Forewarned is forearmed.