Finding and Using Wi-Fi Hotspots

Get online when you're out and about

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A Wi-Fi hotspot is a wireless access point that provides internet access to network devices in public locations such as downtown centers, cafés, airports, and hotels. Businesses and schools are increasingly using Wi-Fi hotspots for their internal (intranet) networks. Home wireless networks also use similar Wi-Fi technology.

Requirements to Use Wi-Fi Hotspots

Computers (and other devices) connect to hotspots using their internal Wi-Fi network adapters.

If you use an older computer that has no internal Wi-Fi adapter, you can purchase and install Wi-Fi network adapters separately. Depending on the type of computer and personal preferences, you can use USB, PC Card, ExpressCard, or even PCI card adapters can be used.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots sometimes require paid subscriptions. The sign-up process involves providing credit card information online or by phone and choosing a service plan. Some service providers offer plans that work at thousands of hotspots throughout the country.

A few pieces of technical information are also required to access Wi-Fi hotspots. The network name (also called SSID) distinguishes hotspot networks from each other. Encryption keys (a long series of letters and numbers) scramble the network traffic to and from a hotspot; most businesses require these as well. Service providers supply this profile information for their hotspots.

Finding Wi-Fi Hotspots

Computers can scan for hotspots automatically within range of their wireless signal. These scans identify the network name (SSID) of the hotspot, allowing the computer to initiate a connection.

Instead of using a computer to find hotspots, some people use a separate gadget called a Wi-Fi finder. These small devices scan for hotspot signals similarly to computers, and many provide some indication of signal strength to help pinpoint their exact locations.

Before traveling to a faraway place, you can find Wi-Fi hotspots using online wireless hotspot finder services.

Connect to Wi-Fi Hotspots

The process for connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot works similarly on home, business, and public wireless networks. With the profile (network name and encryption settings) applied on the wireless network adapter, you initiate the connection from your computer. Paid or restricted hotspot services require you to log in with a username and password the first time you access the internet.

Dangers of Wi-Fi Hotspots

Although the press reports few incidents of hotspot security issues, many people remain skeptical of their safety. Some caution is justified; a hacker with good technical skills can break into your computer through a hotspot and access your personal data.

A few basic precautions can help ensure safety when using Wi-Fi hotspots:

  • Research the public hotspot service providers and choose only reputable ones who use strong security settings on their networks.
  • Ensure you do not accidentally connect to non-preferred hotspots by checking your computer's settings.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, and watch for suspicious individuals who may be reading your screen or even plotting to steal your computer.