The answerat least this is quickly becoming the answer as Wi-Fi gets added to fast food joints, hotel chains, airportsis that Wi-Fi is everywhere. Being able to connect to the Net wherever one wants will soon seem as natural as being able to breathe. To my mind, the right to surf without wires will rank right up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (not to mention the right to chug down the freeway in a giant-size gas guzzling vehicle).
You can find Wi-Fi in all kinds of unlikely places (see the sidebar "Mobile Computing Anywhere" for an example).
Nevertheless, it can take some effort to find Wi-Fi hotspotsthat is, places that allow you to connect to the Internet with your laptop that uses Intel Centrino mobile technologyright where you want and need them.
In some places, it is pretty easy. For example, where I live, in Berkeley, California, there are literally hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots. If I take out my laptop and walk in any direction, I can't go very far without hitting a place that provides Wi-Fi access.
It's a pretty safe bet that you'd find it hard to connect using Wi-Fi high up in the mountains of Wyoming. If the only occupants for hundreds of square miles are sheep, coyotes, and an occasional grizzly bear, no one will have thought to provide the infrastructure to let you connect via Wi-Fi. (Of course, as time goes by, the hibernating bears might feel that they've got to have those hotspots to keep from going crazy with boredom during the long winter nights.)
A little less fatuously, if I listed the absolute minimum requirements for Wi-Fi, I'd say that mostly you need to have people around. Population density is generally a necessity for public Wi-Fi access.
An important point is that Wi-Fi access requires infrastructure. There's a network "behind" Wi-Fi access, and the network provides a gateway to the Internet. Although it's theoretically possible to connect to the Internet via dial-up and then provide shared access via Wi-Fi, as a practical matter, most of the networks that provide Wi-Fi access use a broadband Internet connection. So to connect to the Internet anywhere without wires, you need the Wi-Fi radio broadcast, and you also need to have a solid connection to the Internet.
Assuming that you don't live beyond the end of the Earth, where are the obvious places for Wi-Fi?
As I've already mentioned, it's probable that a Wi-Fi hotspot has a DSL or cable connection to the Internet. Most businesses have, or can get, this kind of access. In addition, for it to make sense for a business location to provide Wi-Fi access, it should be the kind of business in which one (or both) of two conditions apply:
A third possibility, of course, is that providing wireless hotspot access is, in and of itself, a profit center.
Coffee shops are, of course, the canonical example of the first kind of Wi-Fi location (and sometimes, for example in the case of Starbucks, very much the third possibility as well). Airport waiting areas are probably the classical example of the second type of place that benefits from Wi-Fi, as in, "let me check my email while I'm waiting for my flight." Sadly, this is particularly true these days with the increased need to check in long before flights and the longer waits because of security concerns.
This chapter provides information about using available tools for finding Wi-Fi hotspots of all three types. The most useful tools are online directories, with, of course, the (sometimes big) drawback that you already have to be online to use them.
Of course, free hotspotsoften put up by a vendor who hopes for increased business because of people hanging around using wireless networking, or choosing a particular business because it offers free wirelessare great. As one manager of a delicatessen restaurant told me recently, "I get much more business since I installed free Wi-Fi. My customers want to stay longer. And they do seem to get hungry as they surf the Web."
This chapter gives you some tips and techniques for finding free hotspots.
I'll also show you a neat gizmothe Wi-Fi finderyou can use to see if there is a Wi-Fi network broadcasting nearby, without having to be online.
Next, I'll tell you what war driving and war chalking are about. These are two social movements that owe their origins to Wi-Fi and have to do with finding Wi-Fi networks. Practically, you are unlikely to ever have to find Wi-Fi hotspots using chalk marks on a sidewalk, but if you do see these marks at least you will know what they are. Having a look at these chalk marks is a good reminder of the culture of individualism, and making technology available free has helped to make wireless networking what it is today.
Finally, I'll show you how you might start to think of putting up your own hotspot, if this interests you.
Before I get started on this agenda, let me mention one simple, low-tech thing: It pays to ask. If you are looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot in an area far from home, just ask someone. Chances are that many people you meet can direct you to a local Wi-Fi hotspotparticularly if the person you ask is carrying a laptop with an Intel Centrino mobile technology logo.