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A Writer's View of the Wireless Dream - Part 2 - page 3

Into the WiFi Unknown

  • December 8, 2003
  • By Rob Reilly

I'm a little disappointed, with the rate that WiFi is spreading. But, then I'm anxious to be able to connect everywhere and anywhere, for free no less. Access points come in two varieties, pay and free. And, while access points are showing up in the strangest places, it's by no means ubiquitous yet. Here are some examples of the two types of access points:

Pay Providers:

  • T-Mobile provides phone and WiFi service at many different locations. They generally manage the hotspots located in Starbucks Coffee Shops and Borders Book Stores. They're rates are reasonable at around $30 a month for unlimited access on an annual basis. The cost jumps to $40 for a month to month plan. You can get online for $10 a day and $6 per hour. There seems to be a plan to fit everyone.

    As for locations, T-Mobile is usually around population centers. If you take a look at their locator map, you'll see that they are in over 3000 locations around the US. Unfortunately, there aren't any access points in Alabama, South Carolina, Ohio, Arkansas or 11 other states. You'll have to decide whether wireless broadband access is useful, while you sit in a Starbucks.

  • Boingo is another wireless provider with access points in many different cities. Same situation as T-Mobile, that is, availabilities in selected locations. Their pricing seems to be comparable to T-Mobile.
  • Wayport is the last of the Big Three WiFi providers. Wayport is the company putting wireless in McDonald's out in California. They have about 600 locations, mostly specializing in hotels and airports. Wayport also offers comparable annual fees and even prepaid connection time cards. Again, they are around population centers with little or no coverage anywhere else.

I haven't really investigated any other pay type providers. I figured that if the big ones in the industry only have "selected locations" smaller firms would have fewer access point options.

Free providers:

Free WiFi access can be found in a number of different places, some of which will surprise you. Let's take a look.

  • Public libraries - my hometown public library has wireless and it's free to residents with a library card. Your Mommy always told you to keep track of your library card, now you know why. You might have to give the MAC address for your wireless card, but that would just be to authenticate you on their network. Use "ifconfig" to see the MAC address. There are libraries around that country that have free access. After all, a public library doesn't have to turn a profit, they just have to serve their users. The more users they serve, the more funding they get to provide more services. Trust me, it's a good thing. And, you might look into other library services, such as children's reading sessions. Let the kids listen to a story while you knock out a few emails courtesy of your library WiFi access.
  • Conferences - Conventions and conferences are increasingly providing wireless and wired access to attendees. Check with the conference organizer or on their web page for information. I've found that the access points are usually fairly wide open. Either the providers have just plugged in some wireless routers and don't know much about the technology or they just think they should provide the pipes. I've sent email and cruised the web on these links. My editor runs the LinuxPlanet and Linux Today Web sites wirelessly from conferences when he's on the road with his Yellow Dog machine.

    At some of the more techie-oriented conferences, I've even seen vendors putting up access points. I think over time that practice will be regulated by the event organizer, though. Having a bunch of rouge access points hooked into conference networks can't be a good thing.

  • Friend, Family and Business Associates - Lots of normal computer users are installing 802.11x access points in their homes, offices and properties. Just keep your eyes open for the telltale 2.5 GHz. antennas or little router/firewalls with stubs sticking out of them. If you spot any antennas, just act excited and ask if you can connect with your WiFi equipped Linux machine. Many times the access points are wide open and you can get on the net without fuss.

A very good directory of WiFi access points can be found on a sister site of ours: Wi-FiHotSpotList.com. Check it out and see if there are any access points near you.

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