I recently stayed at a charming hotel in California that dates back more than a century. At least, it was charming to me. It's been retrofitted many times over the years as it's struggled to stay no more than 30 years behind the times. It has two elevators, only one of which is completely automatic. The other still has its manual operations lever, and is apparently used only for freight. Most of the room doors still have the old key locks, although some are now sporting new card locks, right underneath script door numbers.
I was told that the place had wireless connection in the lobby, but I never got around to testing it. I figured that in the antique lobby, the signal would be fickle at best. My room was five floors up, then down a twisting hallway that put me a long, long way from the lobby. I put my laptop on the desk and fired it up, thinking to do some disconnected work, when to my amazement, the built-in wirelessfidelity antenna found a signal. I worked online in my room after that, in a hotel that was doing good business when Herbert Hoover was running for president.
It goes to show you how wonderful and adventurous it can be to rely on wi-fi "hot spots" when you travel. "Wi-fi" has become the generic term for wireless connectivity. Just a couple of years ago, you might have had to look hard to find a hot spot, but now they find you. Every Starbucks has wi-fi, as do most other coffee shops. Restaurants often do, too. Because wi-fi is a radio signal, it's not much discouraged by walls, so it's possible to pick up the signal just outside of buildings. You can occasionally find marks on exterior walls and sidewalks that let you know there's wi-fi to be found if you stand there. It's called "warchalking."
It's not only businesses that set up hot spots on the road. In some places, such as most hotel rooms even now, you have to hook up to the 'Net through a cable connection. Some people haul around a "router" that lets them hook up to the local cable outlet, but that also doubles as a wi-fi station. This lets the traveler prop up in bed and work, untethered and blissfully mobile throughout the whole room.
If the router isn't secured, though, anybody can grab some signal and log on through it. I would have thought perhaps this is how I came to have a phantom signal, but the signal was obviously set up to contact straight to T-Mobile (www.tmobile.com), one of the companies that specialize in hooking up the traveler wirelessly.
Wireless companies such as T-Mobile generally do exclusive deals with particular partners to provide connectivity, although the partner has to provide the hardware. T-Mobile, for example, has FedEx Kinko's, Starbucks, Borders Books and Music, and the Denver and Philadelphia airports. Boingo (www.boingo.com), a T-Mobile competitor, has airports such as LAX, Miami International and LaGuardia.
Most such companies have varied deals for connection time. If you fly through LAX a lot, for example, you can do a long-term Boingo deal that gives you almost unlimited access as you sit and wait for your flights. Or you can pay as you go, buying an hour here and an hour there. It's usually easy with modern laptops to hook to almost any carrier. You just fire up and let the machine find whatever signal is nearby. Select the signal and then start up a browser. You're taken right to the hot-spot provider's Web site, where you can either log in as a registered user, or buy some impromptu time if you're not already a subscriber. Get through that process and you're on the air.
However you pay for your air time, you need to make sure that the carrier's signal is encrypted. The carrier's Web site should have that information. If it's not encrypted, it's not secure, and you could be sending banking or corporate information right into the computers of any "sniffers" on the system. If you find a place offering free wi-fi (and independent coffee shops often do), you should ask about encryption.
In general, you shouldn't send truly sensitive information over wi-fi. It's just too dangerous, despite encryption. But it's great for ordinary e-mails, surfing and the like. Enjoy being off the tether.
Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com.