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A free hotspot is a public access point for wireless Internet. Common places you might find a free hotspot are Internet cafes, certain municipalities, airports, hotels and college campuses. To connect to a free hotspot all that’s required is a wireless-enabled computer or other WiFi® device, though the network must be using a protocol supported by the personal computer or device.
Many wireless networks are still using a protocol known as 802.11g, while others are using the newer 802.11n standard. These two standards broadcast in different frequency bands, so both the router and network card must support the same standard to communicate. Routers might support 802.11g only, 802.11n only, or both standards.
Likewise, internal network cards also come in different flavors and might support just one of these two standards, or both. A network card that supports both protocols will be able to connect to any free hotspot, and a router that supports both standards will be able to connect to any patron.
Coffee shops that offer wireless access are incongruously known as wired cafes. In some cases WiFi access is not free and the network requires a password supplied to the patron upon payment. However, free hotspots usually don’t require credentials.
A wireless network that does not require login credentials is almost certainly unencrypted. All data exchanged between the local connected computers and the router is broadcast for everyone in the area to “see.” If you should use a free hotspot to send or receive email, be aware that others within broadcast range can trap and read those transmissions with freely available tools. Avoid exchanging sensitive information in these situations.
It is safe to do online banking from a free hotspot, or to use a secure email service such as HushMail®. Websites that begin with https create a private connection between your browser and the site, encrypting all data exchanged between the two points. A local patron can still trap the broadcast, but it will be unreadable.
There are many devices on the market known as “WiFi finders” that will locate hotspots for you. These devices double as external network cards and are available for the ExpressCard or PC Card slot of mobile computers, or more commonly as USB dongles. The small key will scout for broadcasts in the frequency band(s) supported, and alert to a hotspot by flashing LED signals. Some devices will indicate if the hotspot is encrypted (requires credentials), or unencrypted. Another way to find free, local access is to check websites dedicated to mapping free WiFi locations.