59. About Wireless Hotspots
Public access to the Internet through WiFi has become both a marketing tool for businesses and a major component of both urban and rural planning. Although many of us take advantage of WiFi hotspots in coffee shops and hotels (a hotspot being a business or other establishment that provides a "public" connection to the Internet through a WiFi access point), WiFi networks are being built for entire cities such as San Francisco and are also being implemented in the mountains of rural Appalachia by non-profit agencies.
In terms of the availability of WiFi hotspots, many businesses now provide free wireless access to the Internet. All you have to do is fire up your WiFi-enabled notebook computer within the confines of the business and connect to the WiFi access point.
Hotspot A connection point to the Internet provided by a business or other establishment. The connection point is typically a WiFi router or access point provided by a particular business such as a coffee shop or hotel.
Some businesses provide completely "free" access to the Internet through a WiFi hotspot; others require that you subscribe to a particular provider to use the hotspot found in their establishments or pay for the service by the hour (Internet cafés usually charge for WiFi connections). For example, Starbucks requires that you subscribe to the T-Mobile Hotspot service if you want to connect to the Internet while sipping your double mocha latté (there is a subscription plan or you can pay per hour).
Not all Starbucks locations provide WiFi connections. For more information on Starbucks, the T-Mobile Hotspot service at Starbucks, and a locator to find Starbucks locations that provide WiFi, visit this website.
Obviously, some businesses provide WiFi access as a courtesy to their customers and use the WiFi connection as way to get you in the door so that you will buy the actual product they sell (such as a hotel room). Many business travelers expect hotels to provide WiFi hotspots with high-speed Internet connections. Hotels that provide a WiFi hotspot typically use password protection to keep folks outside the hotel from sucking up all the WiFi bandwidth that is meant for the hotel clients. Folks staying at the hotel are provided a daily user logon name and password so that they can connect to the WiFi hotspot.
Many businesses, however, don't require a logon for connection to the WiFi hotspot. You can go into the establishment, buy your lunch, and connect to the WiFi hotspot by allowing your WiFi adapter to detect the nearest (and strongest) wireless signal. As you know, WiFi access points (such as those built into WiFi routers) provide a range of more than a hundred feet, so you can actually park in the parking lot of a business providing a WiFi hotspot and connect without even entering the business or purchasing a thing. Again, WiFi hotspots provided by businesses are considered marketing tools, so if you feel guilty, you might want to pay back the business occasionally by buying whatever it is that they sell (a cup of coffee won't break the bank).
Hotspot Connection Speeds
When you use a WiFi hotspot to connect to the Internet, you might be surprised at the actual throughput that you are provided. Most 802.11g WiFi adapters provide a potential connection speed of 56Mbps; some enhanced adapters provided possible connection speeds of 108Mbps. On your home WiFi network, you might be realizing the maximum speeds if you have a router that allows a connection speed of 56Mbps or higher.
However, you will find that WiFi hotspots provide much less bandwidth because the purpose of the hotspot is to connect to the Internet and not to provide bandwidth for local area networking. For example, I can connect to a public hotspot using a WiFi adapter that provides a potential connection speed of 56Mbps, however, I might connect at only 11Mbps because the access point for the WiFi hotspot provides only 11Mbps of throughput for connecting computers.
Hotspots won't necessarily provide you with the maximum throughput that can be realized by your WiFi adapter.
Even 10 (the speed for a 802.11b connection) or 11Mbps is overkill in terms of connection speed if you think about it, because the whole point of the WiFi connection is to access the Internet. Even the fastest Internet connection rarely exceeds 700Kbps, so the 11Mbps connection is actually more than enough for me to take advantage of the full bandwidth provided by the hotspot's Internet connection.
The WiFi routers and access points used for public hotspots are typically more sophisticated than the WiFi equipment you buy for home networking. Higher-end WiFi routers can actually be configured so that the amount of bandwidth provided to connections is controlled by the WiFi router or access point. This would allow a hotel to provide greater bandwidth for users connecting to the Internet using the wired network in their rooms as opposed to connecting to the Internet in the lobby through a hotspot.
Because many public hotspots provide anyone with access to the Internet, the security of your data over such a connection can be an issue. If someone also connected to the hotspot is monitoring the network using eavesdropping software that collects data packets, you could be broadcasting important information into the hands of people who will use it for no good.
It is extremely satisfying to drop into a lunch spot that provides a hotspot and eat your lunch while paying your bills online over the Internet. However, your data might be going over the WiFi network unprotected. WiFi hotspots do not necessarily provide any encryption or security strategies.
So, it may be true that you get what you pay for. Hotspots that require you to pay for the servicesuch as the T-Mobile connections found in many Starbucks coffee shopsdo take advantage of user authentication and the WPA security protocol. If you don't have to pay for access to the hotspot, assume that the connection is not secure and monitor your use of the Internet through that connection accordingly. In most cases, when you make a connection to an unsecured WiFi network, a message box opens, letting you know that the WiFi connection is not secured; connect at your own risk.
Another potential security problem when you use public hotspots is the settings on your computer related to file and print sharing. If you share files and printers on your home network, the File and Print Sharing for Microsoft Networks service will be enabled on your computer. So, anyone connected to the same hotspot as you can browse for connected computers and attempt to access any shared folders on those connected computers. You should disable the File and Print Sharing for Microsoft Networks service on your computer when you are using public hotspots to connect to the Internet. See Open Connections Properties and Enable Client, Protocols, and Services for the steps to enable/disable this service.
Disable the File and Print Sharing for Microsoft Networks service when you are using WiFi hotspots.
If you must do transactions and other important data transfers over public hotspot connections, you might want to consider buying a software product that helps secure your data. There are a number of products on the market. For example, check out http://www.jiwire.com/spotlock.htm. JiWire provides a WiFi security product called Spotlock, which encrypts the data going from and to your computer when you are using a public WiFi hotspot connection.