Using Wi-Fi on the Road

I'll be giving an overview of connecting on the road in Chapter 3. Part III includes a lot of detailed information, as well as tips, tricks, techniques, and information about the latest hot mobile gadgets. For now, I'd like to go over some basics related to using Wi-Fi on the road.

For starters, as I explained in the preceding section, "Understanding Wi-Fi Networks," it's not enough to find a Wi-Fi wireless access point. Behind the scenes, the wireless access points need to be capable of providing access to the Internet, usually via a high-speed cable or DSL connection.

In Figure 1.1, I showed you a pretty typical example of how this might work behind the scenes.


With your Wi-Fi device happily chugging and ready to go, a good strong signal from a Wi-Fi access point broadcasting its way to you, and a behind-the-scenes Internet connection that the access point is plugged into, what's next?

Connecting to a public Wi-Fi access point is generally really easy. Usually all you have to do is open your Web browser. In some cases any Web browser will do, but often you need to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Connecting is really quite simple, but I'll be showing you some examples of how this works in Chapter 3.

Paying for It

There are two sides to Wi-Fi. One is the grass-roots peoples' movement in which propeller-headed persons (such as the author of this book) put up free Wi-Fi access points that can be used by anyone within range for free. (Of course, in my case the range is about 50 feet from my house in a quiet residential neighborhood, so it may help a neighbor or two, but is unlikely to be of much use to anyone else.) I'll talk a little more about this free Wi-Fi movement in Chapter 17, "Adding Wi-Fi Antennas to Your Network."

As a practical matter, you are far more likely to encounter the other side of Wi-Fi, which goes like this: Wi-Fi is one of the few areas in technology that has really boomed since the technology bubble burst in 2000. So let's try to build out a public infrastructure so that everyone can use Wi-Fi and charge whatever the market will bear.

The capitalistic, entrepreneurial side of Wi-Fi is what you may meet when you access the Internet via Wi-Fi in public venues such as Starbucks, Borders, hotels, and airports. There will be no free lunches in these venues! On the other hand, some businesses have found that offering free Wi-Fi is a great way to entice customers to stick around for a while and spend more money. In addition, there is a hard-core contingent of idealistic engineering types who see offering free Wi-Fi access as a worthy endeavor. So perhaps sometimes there are free lunches! And when there are, they are really tasty!

As I'll discuss in detail in Chapter 12, "Working with National Wi-Fi Networks," Wi-Fi is increasingly being rolled out by large-scale infrastructure providers.

Typically, you pay for your access based on how long you use it either with a payment plan, or as you go. If you plan to pay as you go, you'll need to have a credit card handy when you log on to the Wi-Fi network.

I'll discuss payment options and plans further in Chapter 12.

Finding Access Points

Where are the public Wi-Fi access points? Why, everywhere and nowhere, like a taxicab on a rainy day.

Actually, the picture is not nearly so bleak, and there are more and more wireless access points every day.

There are also a great number of online tools that help you find access points that meet your needs.

I'll provide an overview of how to find Wi-Fi access points in Chapter 3, and go into greater detail on the various tools and directories available in Chapter 11, "Where Can You Wi-Fi?"

The Absolute Minimum

Here are the key points to remember from this chapter:

  • 802.11 is the engineer's name for a wireless standard that uses a free portion of the broadcast spectrum.

  • Wi-Fi is the name given to wireless devices that are certified to be compatible and use the 802.11 standard.

  • Millions of people are using Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet and private networks without wires.

  • This book will explain both how to connect via Wi-Fi on the road, and how to set up a Wi-Fi wireless network at home (or in the office).

  • Wi-Fi wireless Internet access requires more than just a Wi-Fi access point. To access the Internet, you'll also need an Internet connection and an intermediate layer of hardware equipment.