A hotspot is the term used to mean an area in which Wi-Fi users can connect to the Internet. For the most part, you should expect to pay for access via a hotspot, just as you pay for Internet access via an Internet service provider (ISP), such as a cable or telephone company at home. (On the other hand, many business conventions provide Wi-Fi access as a courtesy to attendees, and it is not unheard of to find courtesy Wi-Fi access in such places as hotel lobbies.)
You may know in advance where to find Wi-Fi access on your travels. I've mentioned hotels and conventions already, because these are likely places to find Wi-Fi access. You can certainly inquire ahead of time.
If you don't have advance information about the location of Wi-Fi hotspots, you can also just turn your laptop on and wander about from location to location like a digital Ulysses looking for wireless access. (You'll find a discussion of a gadget that may help you locate Wi-Fi hotspots just by wandering in Chapter 11, "Where Can You Wi-Fi?") But assuming you'd like something a little more pinpointed than the Clint Eastwood "Do you feel lucky?" approach, using the Internet to find Wi-Fi hotspots is the best way to go.
Of course, you have to be able to access the Internet directories from a location where you have Internet access.
There are three approaches to take when making your search for a place to surf:
You can use the search tools provided by an organization whose branches host Wi-Fi hotspots, such as the Starbucks chain.
If you've signed up with a Wi-Fi provider, you can search the directory of hotspots maintained by your service provider.
You can search one of the many cross-provider Wi-Fi hotspot directories available on the Web.
I'll show how all three approaches might work using a test example. I live midway up in the hills in Berkeley, California. Let's suppose that I want to sip latte at a coffee shop, and need to keep on checking my email while I do.
Searching a Chain
If you know the name of the organization or chain of stores that you would like to use as a wireless destination ("I want to surf at Starbucks," or "I want to browse at Borders"), you can go directly to the Web site of the organization to find a wireless location. The first approach, since I know that Starbucks coffee shops have Wi-Fi hotspots and I like Starbucks coffee just fine, is to find a Starbucks near me that is Wi-Fi enabled.
It's easy to go to http://www.starbucks.com and choose the store locator by clicking the Find Your Nearest Starbucks link on the home page. With the locator page open, I can select Wireless Hotspot Stores from the Store Type drop-down list, and fill in my city, state, and ZIP as shown in Figure 3.3.
Figure 3.3 You can search on the Starbucks Web site for stores with Wi-Fi hotspots.
Click Submit. You'll see a page showing the nearest Starbucks that are equipped with Wi-Fi along with a handy-dandy map (see Figure 3.4).
Figure 3.4 The Starbucks search shows a number of local stores with Wi-Fi hotspots.
Searching a Wi-Fi Service Provider
There are about a dozen major Wi-Fi service providers in the United States alone, and hundreds of smaller, mom-and-pop, vendors. As I'll go into further in Chapter 12, "Working with National Wi-Fi Networks," there are really only a couple of big Wi-Fi service providers with national coverage. If you've signed up for a payment plan with one of these big players, you should probably stick with the hotspots they provide. Although there is no hard-and-fast rule about this, as with cell phone communications, you tend to get charged a bit more for "roaming." Because the industry is still so young and fragmented there is, indeed, no guarantee that one Wi-Fi service provider has even set up a cross-billing arrangement to cover roaming with yours.
Chapter 12 explains the structure of the Wi-Fi service provider industry, who the players are, how to pick the best one for you, and how to work with your Wi-Fi service provider. In the meantime if you're searching for a national Wi-Fi service provider, three of the biggest are Boingo, Wayport, and T-Mobile Hotspot.
Boingo Wireless has about 2,000 live hotspots in the U.S., with a strong representation in hotels and coffee shops, and an international footprint.
Wayport is a privately held company based in Texas that is strong in hotels, airports, andmore recentlyin McDonald's restaurants.
T-Mobile is a cell phone company that is a subsidiary of Deutsches Telekom. The T-Mobile Hotspot division provides Wi-Fi access in Borders, Starbucks, and many other locations, over 3,000 nationally.
The home page for T-Mobile Hotspot is located at http://www.t-mobile.com/hotspot/.
T-Mobile provides a number of tools for searching for hotspots, such as the clickable map and drop-down list shown in Figure 3.5.
Ultimately, if I drill down on my location using the map T-Mobile provides, I'll get the same list of Starbucks locations provided by the Starbucks chain itself for Berkeley, California.
Figure 3.5 You can use the clickable map to find hotspots provided by T-Mobile in your state.
Using a Wi-Fi Directory
If you type the phrase "Wi-Fi Directory" into Google (http://www.google.com), you'll get many links to sites that provide this service.
At least in theory, most of these directories are not restricted to either a particular chain of stores, or to a specific Wi-Fi service provider. They should, therefore, produce the broadest array of choices.
There are many good directories of Wi-Fi locations on the Web. For more information, see Chapter 11 and Appendix B, "Finding Wi-Fi Hotspots."
As you can see in Figure 3.7, the search shows any nearby Starbucks with Wi-Fi hotspots. In addition, it also shows a number of unaffiliated coffee shops, which might be more to your liking, or more convenient. Each listing does show the Wi-Fi service provider that hosts access at the location.
Figure 3.6 You can use a general Wi-Fi site to find hotspots without reference to brands or providers.
Figure 3.7 The WiFi411 directory shows independent hotspots, as well as the ones hosted in Starbucks locations.