Finding and Using Wi-Fi Hot Spots

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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, cafes, 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 a Wi-Fi network adapter. Newer laptop computers contain built-in adapters, but most other computers do not. Wi-Fi network adapters can be purchased and installed separately. Depending on the type of computer and personal preferences, USB, PC Card, ExpressCard, or even PCI card adapters can be used.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots normally require a paid subscription. 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 automatically scan for hotspots 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 prefer to 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 location.

Before traveling to a far-away place, the location of Wi-Fi hotspots can be found 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 operating system (or software that was supplied with the network adapter). Paid or restricted hotspot services will require you to log in with a username and password the first time you access the Internet.

Dangers of Wi-Fi Hotspots

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

Taking a few basic precautions will ensure reasonable safety when using Wi-Fi hotspots. First, research the public hotspot service providers and choose only reputable ones who use strong security settings on their networks. Next, ensure you do not accidentally connect to non-preferred hotspots by checking your computer's settings. Finally, be aware of your surroundings and watch for suspicious individuals in the vicinity who may be reading your screen or even plotting to steal your computer.


Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming an increasingly common form of Internet access. Connecting to a hotspot requires a wireless network adapter, knowledge of the profile information of that hotspot, and sometimes a subscription to a paid service. Computers and Wi-Fi finder gadgets both are capable of scanning the nearby area for Wi-Fi hotspots, and several online services allow you find even far-away points of access. Whether using a home, business or public hotspot, the connection process remains essentially the same. Likewise, as with any wireless network, security issues for Wi-Fi hotspots need to be managed.