Finding Hotspots

Public wireless LANs, or hotspots, are either free or fee-based. In either case, the hotspot provider has probably listed its hotspot in one of the online directories. If you have access to the Internet, the most convenient way to search for a hotspot is on the Web.

The following are the best known hotspot locators:

All of the sites in this list are directory listing services. That is, hotspots are registered by their provider, or registered when someone sets up a hotspot with a wireless ISP, or WISP.

There’s a lot of duplication in these listings, and no listing dominates this field the way that Google does for search engines. Indeed, you may find that searching for a hotspot by location in a Web search engine is a useful approach.

Many hotspot network service providers and aggregators have listings on their Web sites of the nodes in their network. For example, if you want to find out where a T-Mobile hotspot is, you can go to its Web site and do a directory lookup.

If you knew that T-Mobile was the provider for Starbucks coffee shops, you could also use this information to locate Starbucks with hotspots. Other providers such as Wayport can also be searched for locations in hotels, airports, and in other locations.

The problem with almost all of these commercial providers is that they don’t list the free hotspots that are available in so many locations. Boingo is an exception to this rule in that a number of free hotspots are using its service.

Boingo lists the free hotspots in its network, but doesn’t list other free locations. You’ll find that many communities have hotspots or open networks if you know how to find them.

Often these communities advertise themselves in order to bring business into their area. Cities such as Portland, Seattle, and New York City have networks like these. To find a community-based wireless network, search on the term “cityname wireless network,” where cityname is the city you want to search.

It’s worth checking for a Wi-Fi connection anytime you are in a government building, a college, a convention center, or a library. Many of these locations may have open networks.

If you find one, say with a Wi-Fi detector, it’s a good idea to ask before connecting your system to the network. An open network may not necessarily be inviting you to join the hotspot; it may simply be a network that was left open by accident.

Often when you are in a location that provides a commercial hotspot, such as a hotel, you may find that someone who has paid for the connection may have setup an ad hoc network and doesn’t care if you use that connection.

The problem comes when you need to know about the location of hotspots, but you don’t have an Internet connection. One possible solution is found in the software that Boingo supplies for its service, as well as those found from other providers.

In that software is a database of Boingo hotspots that is stored on your laptop and that you can search when you are not connected. We’ll look at Boingo’s client in more detail later. Chances are that you’ll find you’re in a hotspot by encountering a sign that announces its presence.

That sign might appear on the desk in your hotel room, on the door of a lounge in an airport or hotel, or at a coffee shop. Hotspot providers want you to know that their hotspot exists for your use; otherwise they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to install it.

For example, you may see a WI-FI CERTIFIED WLAN Wi-Fi hotspot notice, which indicates that this particular hotspot supports Intel’s Centrino campaign, or spot a sign with a commercial provider’s name such as T-Mobile, Wayport, or Boingo.

Another way to connect to a hotspot in Windows 2000 or XP is to use software provided by an Internet service provider (ISP). Most hotspot providers will provide you with a utility that detects an available wireless signal and notifies you when you are in range.

The class of software is commonly called a sniffer, and it’s possible to download other sniffers as well. Boingo’s software is one example of a sniffer.