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You're ice cold at a hot spot: 7 reasons why

The distance between your laptop and the Net is longer than you might have imagined. How can things go wrong? Let us count the ways.

6 min read
You've bought a wirelessly equipped laptop. You sit down in an airport, hotel or coffee shop where there's supposed to be a hot spot--an invisible bubble of radio waves that lets laptops get onto the Internet at high speed without cables.

A message pops up on your screen indicating that the laptop has indeed detected that it's in a hot spot. That's when you discover that, in fact, you can't get online.

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So much for the wireless life.

As it turns out, the distance between your wireless laptop and the Internet is a lot longer than you might have imagined. In between is a labyrinth of software, settings and people that often deprives road warriors of the pleasure that a wireless laptop is supposed to provide: instant, hassle-free connections.

What can go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Obstacle 1
You forgot to open your browser. In an ideal world, here's how hot-spot hopping would work: You open your laptop. A dialog box (on the Mac) or a taskbar balloon (Windows) announces that it has found a hot spot. You click Connect, and you're ready to start e-mailing or surfing the Web.

And indeed, at many conferences, libraries, hotel lobbies and schools, that's exactly how it goes. Life is sweet.

At commercial hot spots, though--the ones where you have to pay for daily or monthly use of the network--you can't just open your e-mail or chat program and start communicating. Instead, you must first open your Web browser, like Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox. (Some free hot spots require you to first open your Web browser, too.) If you don't realize that a Web browser must be the first stop--even if all you want to do is check your e-mail--your wireless adventure will be very, very short.

Once you open your browser, you see a Web page representing the operator of the wireless network. At Starbucks, Kinko's and many airports, for example, a T-Mobile Web page appears; at many hotels and other airports, it's a Wayport page. Here's where you plug in your credit card number; or, if you have an existing account, sign in.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the wireless companies often have roaming agreements. If you have an AT&T or British Telecom wireless Internet account, for example, but find yourself at a T-Mobile hot spot, just choose your company's name from the Roaming or Partner pop-up menu.

At this point, clicking the Connect button opens a connection to the Internet. You can now use your Web browser, e-mail program, chat software and other functions that require your machine to be online.

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Obstacle 2
You don't have a home page. Actually, it's not enough to open your Web browser. You have to try to visit a Web page. Some people have set up their Web browsers to open to an empty screen rather than a preferred starting page; their laptops won't make the connection. If you're staring at a blank page, try to visit a Web page--any Web page--to nudge your machine onto the network. The wireless company's page will appear instead of the page you requested.

Obstacle 3
The hot spot isn't for public use. Occasionally, your laptop will "see" a wireless network and connect to it, but you won't be able to pull up a Web page or send e-mail. In this case, you have stumbled onto a network that's intended for internal use, not for the public. Whoever set

up the access point (that is, the wireless transmitter) has deliberately turned off the feature, called DNS serving, that can connect outsiders to the Internet.

It's also possible that you have encountered a wireless network that's not connected to the Internet at all. It's just a circle of computers connected to each other, a closed network created so that some friends can play a game against one another, or so that conference attendees can chat among themselves during a talk, for example.

If you're technically inclined, here's a geeky but quick way to confirm that this is the problem: Inspect your laptop's current IP address (Internet Protocol; that is, its Internet address). On the Mac, open the program in your Utilities folder called Network Utility. In Windows, choose Run in the Start menu; type "cmd" and press Enter; type ipconfig /all and press Enter. Either way, if you have joined a closed network, you'll see an IP address beginning with 169.254--for example,

The bad news: "It's like a gentle 'Keep Out' sign," said Brian Jepson, who edits books on wireless technology and co-wrote "Linux Unwired." "You'll have to find some other way to get online."

Obstacle 4
You need a password. These days, many wireless networks don't let you online without a password, whether they're free or commercial hot spots. (You'll know when a password box appears on your screen.)

Sometimes the password is yours for the asking. Sometimes you get it when you pay, for example, a hotel desk clerk for access. And sometimes a company has installed the password just to keep riffraff like you off its private network. Of course, most network designers hide such networks' signals altogether, so that your laptop doesn't even discover them.

Obstacle 5
The access point is broken. If your laptop sees the hot spot but can't connect you to the Internet, another possibility is that the transmitter (the access point) is configured incorrectly. If you can find somebody in authority--whoever's behind the hotel desk, for example--you may be able to persuade that person to hit the Reset button on the access point, which may do the trick. In some cases, there's even a toll-free number stickered to the access point, bearing the name of the geek who sets up wireless networks for this particular chain of hotels or coffee shops. That person, sitting in a cubicle miles away, may know what to do.

Obstacle 6
You have a conscience. Suppose your laptop cheerfully reports that it has found a hot spot called Default or LinkSys. (Those are the typical names of newly purchased wireless access points, at least until you give them more creative names.)

Now, in a typical wireless coffee shop, the hot spot usually bears the coffee shop's name. "Ask the person behind the counter," Jepson said. "If they look at you funny, you know the hot spot probably isn't theirs."

In this case, some hapless individual's private Internet bubble is probably bleeding through the walls--somebody who didn't, or couldn't, change the hot spot's default name. The only obstacle is the ethical one: Should you enjoy a free connection by exploiting somebody's cluelessness?

(If you have deliberately set up a hot spot for the convenience of passersby, save your visitors confusion by naming it something like "Dave's Free Hot Spot.")

Obstacle 7
You're in Boston. If your laptop discovers a free network called the South Station Wi-Fi Bubble, you must be in the South Station train terminal in Boston. You can get onto the Web, all right--but it's not the big one, the one you're used to. It's a very tiny Web indeed, one whose few pages are dedicated to South Station, its history and its characters. You have stumbled onto an electronic community-building experiment established by Michael Oh, founder of a local wireless consulting company.

That doesn't mean you can't get onto the big Internet instead. You can also hop onto the commercial wireless network that's available in South Station. Assuming, of course, that everything else goes well.

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