The answer, at least in a few years, is that Wi-Fi will be everywhere. Being able to connect to the Net wherever one wants will seem as natural as being able to breathe. Perhaps 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 "The Web Is a Global Village" for an example).
Nevertheless, it can take some effort to find Wi-Fi hotspots that is, places that allow you to connect to the Internet with your Wi-Fi enabled laptop or PDA right 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 which 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.
A little less fatuously, if I listed the absolute minimum requirements for Wi-Fi, I'd say 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.
THE WEB IS A GLOBAL VILLAGE
A number of villages in northeastern Cambodia use Wi-Fi in an unusual way to connect with the Internet. Five men on mountain motorbikes connect these villages, which are otherwise too remote for Internet access, with the world. Each motorbike is equipped with a rugged portable computer equipped as a Wi-Fi access point.
Internet search queries and email are stored on the portable devices when each bike drives past solar-powered stations near the villages, which are linked to the villages using standard Ethernet cabling. Then the content is "dropped-off," again using Wi-Fi technology, when the bike goes past a central satellite station that connects to the Internet.
The same process in reverse brings email (and answers to queries) back to the villages.
You can read more about this pioneering effort that uses Wi-Fi to bring the Internet to some of the world's most inaccessible places at www.firstmilesolutions.com/demo.htm.
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:
Coffee shops are, of course, the classic example of the first kind of Wi-Fi location. Airport waiting areas are probably the canonical 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!" (Particularly these days with the increased need to check in long before flights and the longer waits due to security concerns.)
This chapter provides information about using available tools for finding Wi-Fi hotspots. The most useful tools are online directories, with, of course, the drawback that you already have to be online to use them.
I'll also show you a neat gizmo the Wi-Fi Finder you can use to see if there is a Wi-Fi network broadcasting nearby.
Finally, 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.
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 hotspot particularly if the person you ask is carrying a laptop!