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Wireless Home Networking For Dummies - Danny Briere.pdf
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292 Part IV: Using a Wireless Network

Discovering Public Hot Spots

A wide variety of people and organizations have begun to provide hot spot services, ranging from individuals who have opened up their home wireless networks to neighbors and strangers to multinational telecommunications service providers who have built nationor worldwide hot spot networks containing many hundreds of access points. There’s an in-between here, too. Perhaps the prototypical hot spot operator is the hip (or wannabe hip) urban cafe with a digital subscriber line (DSL) and an access point (AP) in the corner. In Figure 16-1, you can see a sample configuration of APs in an airport concourse, which is a popular location for hot spots because of travelers’ downtime when waiting for flights or delays.





Figure 16-1:


An airport




is a perfect


location for


a hot spot,







Public Access



Virtually all hot spot operators use the 802.11b standard for their hot spot access points — we don’t know of a single one anywhere in the world that uses the newer standards. This is good because the majority of wireless networking equipment in use today uses this standard. Note: If your laptop or handheld computer has an 802.11a-only network adapter in it, you won’t be able to connect these hot spot operator’s networks. If you use 802.11g equipment, you should be able to connect because 802.11g equipment is backward compatible with 802.11b. Head to Chapter 2 for a refresher on the 802.11 Wi-Fi standards.

Of the myriad reasons why someone (or some company) might open up a hot spot location, the most common that we’ve seen include the following:

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In a spirit of community-mindedness: Many hot spot operators strongly believe in the concept of a connected Internet community, and they want to do their part by providing a hop-on point for friends, neighbors, and even passers-by to get online.

As a municipal amenity: Not only individuals want to create a connected community. Many towns, cities, boroughs, and villages have begun exploring the possibility of building municipality-wide Wi-Fi networks. There’s a cost associated with this, of course, but they see this cost as being less than the benefit that the community will receive. For example, many towns are looking at an openly accessible “downtown Wi-Fi network” as a way of attracting business (and businesspeople) into downtown areas that have suffered because of businesses moving to the suburbs.

A way to attract customers: Many cafes and other public gathering spots have installed free-to-use hot spots as a means of getting customers to come in the door and to stay longer. These businesses don’t charge for the hot spot usage, but they figure that you’ll buy more double espressos if you can sit in a comfy chair and surf the Web while you’re drinking your coffee.

As a business in and of itself: Most of the larger hot spot providers have made public wireless LAN access their core business. They see (and we agree with them) that hot spot access is a great tool for traveling businesspeople, mobile workers (such as sales folks and field techs), and the like. They’ve built their businesses based around the assumption that these people (or their companies) will pay for Wi-Fi access mainly because of the benefits that a broadband connection offers them compared with the dialup modem connections that they’ve been traditionally forced to use while on the road.

Another group of hot spot operators exists that we like to call the unwilling (or unwitting!) hot spot operators. These are often regular Joes who have built wireless home networks but haven’t activated any of the security measures that we discuss in Chapter 10. Their access points have been left wide open, and their neighbors (or people sitting on the park bench across the street) are taking advantage of this open access point to do some free Web surfing. Businesses, too, fall into this category: You’d really be shocked how many businesses have access points that are unsecured — and in many cases, that their IT staff doesn’t even know about. It’s all too common for a department to install its own access point (a rogue access point) without telling the IT staff that they’ve done so.

We tend to divide hot spot operators into two categories: free networks (freenets) that let anyone associate with the hot spot and get access without paying; and for-pay hot spots that require users to set up an account and pay per use or a monthly (or yearly) fee for access. In the following sections, we talk a bit about these two types of operators.

294 Part IV: Using a Wireless Network

Freenets and open access points

Most open access points are just that: individual access points that have been purposely (or mistakenly) left open for others to use. Because this is essentially an ad hoc network created by individuals — without any particular organization behind them — these open hot spots can be hard to find. (Note: This is different than an ad hoc network that doesn’t use an access point, as we describe in Chapter 7.) In some areas, the owners of these hot spots are part of an organized group, which makes these hot spots easier to find. But in other locations, you’ll need to do some Web research and/or use some special programs on your laptop or handheld computer to find an open access point.

The more organized groups of open access points (often called freenets) can be found in many larger cities. See a listing of the Web sites of some of the most prominent of these freenets in Chapter 20. A few of the bigger and better-organized ones include

NYCwireless (www.nycwireless.net): A freenet serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other areas of the metro New York City region

Bay Area Wireless Users Group (www.bawug.org): A freenet in the San Francisco Bay area

AustinWireless (www.austinwireless.net): Serving the Austin, Texas region

Many freenets are affiliated with larger, nationor even worldwide efforts. Two of the most prominent are FreeNetworks.org (www.freenetworks.org) and the Wireless Node Database Project (www.nodedb.com). These organizations run Web sites and provide a means of communications for owners of hot spots and potential users to get together.

These aren’t the only sources of information on open hot spots. The folks at 802.11 Planet (one of our favorite sources of industry news) run the Web site 802.11Hotspots.com (www.80211hotspots.com) that lets you search through its huge worldwide database of hot spots. You can search by city, state, or country. 802.11Hotspots.com includes both free and for-pay hot spots, so it’s a pretty comprehensive list.

You’re going to have a lot more luck finding freenets and free public access points in urban areas. The nature of 802.11 technologies is such that most off- the-shelf access points are only going to reach a few hundred feet with any kind of throughput. So when you get out of the city and into the suburbs and rural areas, the chances are that an access point in someone’s house isn’t going to reach any place that you’re going to be . . . unless that house is right next door to a park or other public space. There’s just a density issue to overcome. In a city, where there might be numerous access points on a single block, you’re just going to have much better luck getting online.

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Although these lists are pretty good, none of them are truly comprehensive because many individuals out there who have open hot spots haven’t submitted them. If you’re looking for a hot spot and haven’t found it through one of these (or one of the many, many others online) Web sites, you might try using one of the hot spot-finding programs that we discuss in the upcoming section “Tools for Finding Hot Spots.”

Some of the hot spots that you find using these tools, or some of the online Web pages that collect the reports of people using these tools, are indeed open, albeit unintentionally. As we discuss in Chapter 10, a whole wireless LAN subculture is out there — the wardrivers — who recreationally find open access points that should be closed. (Check out www.wifimaps.com for some results of their handiwork.) We’re not going to get involved in a discussion of the morality or ethics of using these access points to get yourself online. We would say, however, that some people think that locating and using an open access point is a bad thing, akin to stealing. So if you’re going to hop on someone’s access point and you don’t know for sure that you’re meant to do that, you’re on your own.

For-pay services

Freenets are cool. And, although we think that freenets are an awesome concept, if you’ve got an essential business document to e-mail or a PowerPoint presentation that you’ve absolutely got to download from the company server before you get to your meeting, you might not want to rely solely on the generosity of strangers. You might even be willing to pay to get a good, reliable, secure connection to the Internet for these business (or important personal) purposes.

And trust us: Someone out there is thinking about how he can help you with that need. In fact, a bunch of companies are focusing on exactly that business. It’s the nature of capitalism, right? You’ve got a need that you’re willing to part with some hard-earned cash to have requited. And some company is going to come along, fulfill that need, and separate you from your money.

The concluding sections of the chapter talk about a few of these companies, but for now, we just talk in generalities. Commercial hot spot providers are mainly focused on the business market, providing access to mobile workers and road-warrior types. And many of these providers also offer relatively inexpensive plans (by using either prepaid calling cards or pay-by-the-use models) that you might use for non-business (your personal) connectivity. (At least if you’re like us, and you can’t go a day without checking your mail or reading DBR — www.dukebasketballreport.com — even when on vacation.)

Unless you’re living in a city or town right near a hot spot provider, you’re probably not going to be able to pick up a hot spot as your primary ISP, although in some places (often smaller towns), ISPs are using Wi-Fi as the primary pipe to

296 Part IV: Using a Wireless Network

their customers’ homes. You can expect to find for-pay hot spot access in a lot of areas outside the home. The most common include the following:

Hotel lobbies and rooms

Coffee shops and Internet cafes

Airport gates and lounges

Office building lobbies

Train stations

Meeting facilities

Basically, anywhere that folks armed with a laptop or a handheld computer might find themselves, there’s a potential for a hot spot operator to build a business.

Opening up to your neighbors

We’re not talking about group therapy or wild hot tub parties. Wireless networks can carry through walls, across yards, and potentially around the neighborhood. Although wireless LANs were designed from the start for in-build- ing use, the technology can be used in outdoors settings. For example, most college campuses are now wired with dozens or hundreds of wireless access points so that students, staff, and professors can access the Internet from just about anywhere on campus. At UC San Diego, for example, freshmen are outfitted with wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) to schedule classes, send e-mails, and instant messages, and even find their friends at the student center (by using a locator program written by a student). Many folks are adapting this concept when it comes to access in their neighborhood, setting up community wireless LANs.

Some creators of these community LANs have taken the openness of the Internet to heart and have opened up their access points to any and all takers. There’s even an Internet subculture with Web sites and chalk markings on sidewalks

identifying these open access points. In other areas, where broadband access is scarce, neighbors pool money to buy a T1 or other business-class, high-speed Internet line to share it wirelessly.

We think that both of these concepts make a lot of sense, but we do have one warning: Many Internet service providers (ISPs) don’t like the idea of you sharing your Internet connection without them getting a piece of the action. Beware that you might have to pay for a more expensive commercial ISP line. Before you share your Internet connection, check your ISP’s Terms of Service (TOS) or look at the listing of wireless-friendly ISPs on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Web page (www.eff. org). The same is true of DSL and cable modem providers. Your usage agreement with them basically says that you won’t do this, and they’re starting to charge high-use fees to lines that have extranormal traffic (that is, those lines that seem like there are a bunch of people on the broadband line sharing the connection).

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Pretty soon, you’ll even be able to plug into a Wi-Fi network on an airplane. Boeing and Cisco have been teaming up to get wireless Internet access on passenger planes. In fact, they’ve already got one plane — a Lufthansa 747 that makes regular trips between Frankfurt, Germany and Washington, DC — already outfitted with the system. The system connects to a satellite ISP and gives passengers a high-speed connection (up to 1 Mbps) in any seat on the plane (even back in 52b, that awful middle seat by the lavatory!). Here’s a cool aside about this system: On the inaugural flight, a reporter wrote and submitted his story entirely online while flying on the plane.

The single biggest issue that’s been holding back the hot spot industry so far (keeping it as a huge future trend instead of a use-it-anywhere-today reality) has been the issue of roaming. As of this writing, no one hot spot operator has anything close to ubiquitous coverage. Instead, dozens of different hot spot operators, of different sizes, operate in competition with each other. As a user, perhaps a sales person who’s traveling across town to several different clients in one day, you might find yourself running into hot spots from three or four different hot spot providers — and needing accounts from three or four separate providers to get online with each.

This is a lot different, of course, from the cell phone industry, in which you can pretty much take your phone anywhere and make calls. The cell phone providers have some elaborate roaming arrangements in place that allow them to bill each other (and in the end, bill you, the user) for these calls. Hot spot service providers haven’t quite reached this point. However, here are a couple of trends that will help bring about some true hot spot roaming:

Companies, such as Boingo Wireless, are entering the market. Boingo (founded by Sky Dayton, who also founded the huge ISP EarthLink), doesn’t operate any of its own hot spots but instead has partnered with a huge range of other hot spot operators from little mom-and-pop hot spot operators to big operations such as Wayport. Boingo provides all the billing and account management for end users. Thus, a Boingo customer can go to any Boingo partner’s hot spot, log on, and get online. (We talk about both Boingo and Wayport in more detail later in the chapter.)

Cell phone companies are getting into the hot spot business. Led by T-Mobile, cell phone companies are beginning to buy into the hot spot concept, setting up widespread networks of hot spots in their cellular phone territories. Although these networks aren’t yet ubiquitous —

the coverage isn’t anywhere close to that of the cellular phone networks yet — it is getting better by the day.

Besides improving coverage and solving the roaming problem, commercial hot spot providers are also beginning to look at solutions that provide a higher grade of access — offering business class hot spot services, in other words. For example, they are exploring special hot spot access points and