A hotspot is any public area where computers that have been fitted with wireless network technology can gain access to the Internet. The computer accomplishes this by contacting a nearby wireless network with its internal NIC (Network Interface Card). The NIC seeks out the radio waves generated by wireless networks. When it detects a signal strong enough, it asks permission to log on to the network. Though this access is often free, other times the wireless network requires registration and a small fee before it will grant the computer access.
Many cafés now feature a wireless network environment or hotspot, so that customers can sit leisurely, sip coffee and work on their laptops with full Internet access. Establishments that offer hotspots are referred to as being wired, somewhat of a misnomer since the technology is wireless.
A network that generates a hotspot basically consists of a wireless router and modem. The RF, or radio frequency, waves used by a wireless network extend in all directions from the central location of these devices, before finally weakening through interference and lack of signal strength. If a computer is inside the 'shroud' of RF waves, it will have the capability to connect to the network. This area is the hotspot. As the computer moves further away from the router and modem devices, the connection will become weaker and slower. The quality of the connection deteriorates rapidly at the boundary. The computer will lose access completely if it leaves the hotspot.
A hotspot might not be specifically generated for public use. All wireless networks generate RF waves and hotspots. A hotspot can be available outside of a commercial building, for example. In this case, the wireless network is not specifically set up to service public clients, so access will be free. The user is more or less hitchhiking to the Internet. However, a firewall installed in the router may prevent unauthorized access of the hotspot by requesting a username and password before granting access to the Internet.
Many cities such as Hermosa Beach, California, have installed wireless networks for their citizenry and visitors by creating a large, free hotspot that covers a specific area of the city. People can park in such areas and use laptops to do online business, collect or send email, or hop on to a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Gaining access to the Internet from a vehicle can be extremely handy. When traveling, one can pull over to look up directions or phone numbers, or to get traffic or flight information, among countless other uses.
Most NICs make it quite easy to find a hotspot. They feature a configuration screen that scans automatically for networks in the area. By glancing at the graphic bars that indicate signal strength, one can head in the direction of greater strength.
Wireless technology is very affordable and convenient. Current laptops come with NICs preinstalled. Older laptops can be fitted with external NICs that slide into one of the PCMCIA slots, or a USB port. In just minutes you can be tracking down a hotspot on the fly, or surfing the Internet while enjoying a hot cup of java at the local wired café.