Going to a hotspot? Take a PC and wireless card

CIOL Bureau
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NEW YORK: The key to getting into a hotspot isn't knowing the right people, it's having the right equipment: a notebook computer, a wireless networking card and a credit card.


So-called "hotspots" are popping up around the world, allowing computer users to log onto the high-speed Internet through wireless network access points in public parks, cafes and hotels.

That means you can check e-mail or get the latest headlines from a comfy lounge chair in the hotel lobby or while sipping a cappuccino.

Sounsd like something only the most-wired computer users can figure out? It's not.



The first thing on the shopping list should be a notebook computer. The latest machines from companies like Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp., and International Business Machines Corp. often come with built-in wireless capability, making logging on even easier.

But if the computer is more than a year old, it probably means the first thing you'll need to do is start shopping for what's known as a wireless networking card. In geek parlance, these are called Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, cards.

To find one, do a search for wireless LAN (local area network) PC card or wireless PCI card or head out to the local computer store. The main thing to look for in the card, which is made by companies like Netgear and Linksys, is that it works with the most popular standard for wireless networking, called 802.11b. The price should be anywhere from about $50 to $100. A bit smaller than a baseball card, it fits into a slot on the side of the computer.


If you're using an operating system that pre-dates Microsoft's Windows XP, the next step would be to load the software that comes with the card. If you don't have a CD-ROM drive, you can go to the manufacturer's web site and download the software, called a driver. Windows XP was released last year and has built-in wireless software, while earlier operating systems like Windows 98 and Windows 2000 don't include any wireless support software.

The software is what enables the computer to find the wireless signals being sent out from the access points -- similar to the way a mobile phone works.



Once the software is loaded, you'll need to reboot and consider your options for how to pay for your surfing time.

Some hotspots are free to users. For example, Bryant Park in New York City is run by a not-for-profit group called NYC Wireless. In other areas, like Palo Alto, California, the town government foots the bill for hotspots in public libraries (

Still others are run by for-profit companies, the two largest being T-Mobile ( and Boingo ( .) Both have payment options that allow either paying a monthly fee of about $30 for an unlimited amount of surfing, or paying for a set number of minutes.


Unsure where to find a hotspot? Both web sites have links to a list of wireless sites on their home pages, including places like airports and cafes. Boingo's site also has a list of the non-Boingo free networks available while the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry trade group, is compiling a list of locations (

The accounts are run much like the cell phone industry was in the early days, said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst who often uses T-Mobile's access points at Starbucks coffee shops, even logging on in parking lots.

Changing billing options can be expensive, he warns, as some plans lock customers in for 12 months or charge a penalty for changing to a new plan, or canceling.



Kagan also warns of security issues. Most public sites don't include the encryption features of a home or office network. That means the information you send to the wireless access point is easier for strangers to see.

"The bottom line is: You don't want to do a bank transaction," Kagan said.

Not sure who offers the service near you? There's no need to plan ahead. Once you arrive at the coffee shop or airport, power up your laptop and click on the wireless software. It'll look for the wireless network and then prompt you to choose to connect. You can sign up then for an account, or just use your credit card to pay for that day.


Adam Guy, director of research for Infotek in Beaverton, Oregon, said he advises first-time wireless network users to make sure the operating system as well as the latest security software is up to date. Guy wound up returning his wireless network card after being unable to get the wireless connection to work on his older laptop. "I bought it at a computer store used and I've got no one to call except for Linxsys," he said.

Even Intel Corp.'s head of worldwide sales and marketing, Mike Splinter, had wireless computer connection problems at a news conference held last week in Germany to announce the debut of Intel's ground-breaking Wi-Fi chips that aim to simplify the process.

After declaring how easy it was for him to set up at home, Splinter had trouble connecting to a nearby wireless network when he tried to demonstrate the new technology, which Intel says will also address security concerns.

After two failed attempts, the embarrassed executive said: "Well, it took three tries, and if you have set up any home electronics, you know it probably takes you longer than that."