As online activities become increasingly integrated with real world activities, the number of places you can get free wireless access is growing. Several types of wireless adapters can detect wireless networks, and there are also website directories dedicated to locating free WiFi® hotspots in any given area around the world.
When possible, locate hotspots before leaving home. You can check one or more websites that host hotspot directories. Enter local area information (address or zip code) to see results. Most sites allow you to set an allowable search range, such as looking for free WiFi® areas “within one mile” (1.61 km) of the target area. Results display as hyperlinked names of each establishment. Clicking on a result will take you to a page with the address, phone number, and a road map. Details about the type of network (e.g. standard 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n) are also commonly provided.
If planning a vacation or business trip, search for free WiFi® hotspots in advance by entering the zip code of the location you’ll be visiting. It’s always a good idea to have backup hotspots in case the one you plan to use is down for any reason.
While directories make every attempt to be accurate, businesses come and go, ownership or management changes, and networks get upgraded or changed from one standard to another, for instance, or from a free hotspot to a pay-for-service. If access will be critical, call establishments you plan to use ahead of time to verify that free WiFi® hotspots are available. If your internal network card can only connect to a single protocol, such as 802.11g, be sure to ask if the network is broadcast in the protocol your card supports.
Planning ahead is nice but not always possible. If you find yourself in the city with need of ad-hoc access, you have some options. Cruising through commercial areas with a WiFi® finder can be a big help.
A WiFi® finder is a radio frequency (RF) device that scans the airwaves looking for WiFi® broadcasts, some models flashing graduating LED lights to lead the user towards greater signal strength. A WiFi® finder can be a small battery-operated device that hangs on a key chain. These devices allow you to find free WiFi® hotspots without powering up the laptop. Other models include USB dongles that might double as external network cards. A WiFi® finder is best used by a passenger in the vehicle.
If you don’t own a WiFi® finder and have not scouted free WiFi® areas ahead of time, upscale coffee shops like Starbucks® are often wired and easy to find, as are many large bookstore chains that include coffee counters. Airports and hotels are other possible sources for online access. If needed, consult a phone book at a pay phone for the nearest places most likely to have free WiFi® hotspots. Online access might be noted in the advertisements for some of these businesses. The municipality itself might provide a free wireless access point near the civic center, library or other city building. If your need arises during business hours, call city services to ask.
On a technical note, the Wi-Fi® Alliance is an organization that provides international standards for wireless protocols. Only a network composed of Wi-Fi-certified components is a true Wi-Fi® network or Wi-Fi® hotspot, while the public has adopted the term “WiFi” as a generic descriptor of any wireless network, regardless of the type of hardware used.