Wireless Hotspots

Wireless hotspots provide Internet access using Wi-Fi access points installed in airports, hotels, and other public places. To provide Internet access in public places, a hotspot manages local area Wi-Fi connections through a wireless access point.
What Is Hotspot

Definition: A hotspot is any location where Wi-Fi network access (usually Internet access) is made publicly available. You can often find hotspots in airports, hotels, coffee shops, and other places where business people tend to congregate. Hotspots are considered a valuable productivity tool for business travelers and other frequent users of network services.

Technically speaking, hotspots consist of one or several wireless access points installed inside buildngs and/or adjoining outdoor areas. These APs are typically networked to printers and/or a shared high-speed Internet connection. Some hotspots require special application software be installed on the Wi-Fi client, primarily for billing and security purposes, but others require no configuration other than knowledge of the network name (SSID).

Wireless service providers like T-Mobile generally own and maintain hotspots. Hobbyists sometimes setup hotspots as well, often for non-profit purposes. The majority of hotspots require payment of hourly, daily, monthly, or other subscription fees.

Hotspot providers strive to make connecting Wi-Fi clients as simple and secure as possible. However, being public, hotspots generally provide less secure Internet connections than do other wireless business networks.

Wi-Fi Hotspots

A Wi-Fi hotspot is a wireless access point provides Internet access to wireless network devices in public locations such as downtown centers, cafes, airports and hotels. Businesses and schools are incresaingly 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 automatically scan for hotspots within range of their wireless signal. The scan identifies 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.