How to find truly free wireless access

Gaps in free wireless Internet access are slowly being filled in by public and private organizations, as well as by ad hoc groups of wireless-network users offering a portion of their bandwidth to the public.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
8 min read

JiWire Global Wi-Fi Finder
JiWire's Wi-Fi finder identifies free and paid hot spots in cities and countries around the world. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You're in the middle of a city park. You're at a rest stop on the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe you're simply in your living room. You turn on your computer and have instant, secure access to the Internet without requiring any network cables or log-ins -- or even any payment to an ISP.

Yeah, right.

Ubiquitous, free, and safe Internet access is a long, long way off, and many skeptics believe such a day will never arrive. The glass-half-full among us will point out that the number of people within range of free, secure Internet connections increases every day.

Here's a quick look at the free tools and services designed to help us find and sign into secure wireless access points.

Free tools and services identify networks near and far
Nearly every portable computer and smart phone automatically finds and identifies wireless portals within range of the device. When you sign into a hot spot you'll likely be offered the option to sign into the location automatically the next time you're nearby. An icon on screen indicates the strength of the connection, usually by displaying a number of bars.

Free programs such as MetaGeek's inSSIDer for Windows and iStumbler.net's iStumbler for Macs provide more information about the wireless networks they detect and also offer tools for troubleshooting and otherwise managing a wireless network connection.

You can find a free Wi-Fi access point near a location you're planning to visit by using one of the many hot-spot locator services. For breadth of coverage you'd be hard pressed to find a locator serving up more hot spots over a broader area than JiWire's Global Wi-Fi Finder. The site lists hundreds of thousands of free and fee-based wireless access points in 145 countries.

Enter a city or ZIP code in the site's search box or click its zoomable map to view available hot spots. You can search for locations by name or address, by location type (such as cafe, library, or government office), and by provider. Searches can be narrowed by free or fee-based sites, and by proximity; the search results can be viewed on a map or in a list. JiWire lets you register a new Wi-Fi location, license its Wi-Fi database, and download its free Wi-Fi Finder app for iPhone and iPod Touch.

The Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory is organized by state and by one of six international regions: Europe; Canada; Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America; the Middle East and Africa; Asia; and Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. Entries for each state are listed alphabetically by city with address/location and telephone number. Many of the listings link to the establishment's site.

The directory lets you complete a form to add a new Wi-Fi location. It also provides a Wi-Fi FAQ and blog, but the site lists fewer locations than JiWire's Wi-Fi Finder, and it doesn't let you view the hot spots on a map. The Wi-Fi FreeSpot site is also less polished than JiWire's service: in addition to a number of typos in the Wi-Fi FreeSpot listings, it isn't always clear what is an ad and what is the site's own content.

Brighthouse Networks, Optimum, Time Warner Cable, and Xfinity have collaborated to create the Cable WiFi service that allows each ISP's customers to access the wireless access points offered by the other companies in "select U.S. markets." To find out whether your market is selected, visit your ISP's Wi-Fi locator: Brighthouse, Cox, Optimum, Time Warner Cable, and Xfinity.

AT&T customers can use the company's Wi-Fi Locator to view available hot spots on a zoomable map. Enter an address, ZIP code, country, or landmark in the site's search box to view the hot-spot locations on a map keyed to listings that include the name, address, and network ID (SSID). The listings also feature links to get directions to the site, to send the address via e-mail or text message, and to view details about the hot spot.

AT&T Wi-Fi Locator hot spot map and listings
AT&T's Wi-Fi Locator keys its mapped hot spots to listings that include the location address and related information. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Just because you're unable to find a free Wi-Fi access point for your location in these services' listings doesn't mean you're out of luck. As more businesses and organizations provide public hot spots, the number of areas not covered continues to shrink. The Apartment Therapy site recently described "12 Places You Didn't Know Had Free Wi-Fi."

Not all of the categories of hot-spot providers the site lists are big surprises: bookstores and fast-food restaurants have been offering their customers free wireless Internet access for some time. But parks, buses, museums, and yoga studios aren't necessarily noted for being Wi-Fi-friendly.

When 'free' wireless access isn't
It isn't unusual for vendors of all types to throw around the term "free" when describing their products and services that are anything but. NetZero and FreedomPop claim to provide free Wi-Fi access.

The asterisk on the NetZero site specifies that the company's "[f]ree data plan comes with 200MB of data per month and requires the purchase of a NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband device. Access to the Free plan from a specific device expires (and may not be renewed) twelve (12) months from the date of initial registration, or upon upgrading to a paid plan." NetZero's 4G USB modem costs $50, and its 4G Hotspot costs $100.

Similarly, FreedomPop's free 4G service requires that you purchase an access device for $39 for a USB stick (normally $49) or $89 for a portable 4G hot spot (normally $99). The company's "free" service allows up to 500MB of data transfers per month, which is a step up from the 200MB of data transfers offered by NetZero's "free" plan. However, both companies are counting on customers upgrading to a plan that charges a monthly fee.

Municipal wireless networks grow at a snail's pace
You may be one of the lucky wireless-network users within range of a free municipal wireless network, likely created through a public-private partnership. Political, social, and economic questions aside, implementation and management of such citywide networks pose considerable technical hurdles.

Perhaps the most comprehensive list of municipal wireless networks currently in operation and planned is available in Wikipedia's municipal wireless network page. As with most Wikipedia entries, the list is far from exhaustive. For example, my hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif., provides free Wi-Fi access in large swathes of the city center and other locations. Check your local government's Web site for information about free wireless-network services.

Taking the community approach to free Wi-Fi access
When you consider the great number of Wi-Fi routers sold in recent years you would think the challenge would be finding a location that wasn't covered by somebody's wireless network. It isn't uncommon for city dwellers to rely on their neighbors' unsecured Wi-Fi access points as their unofficial Internet providers.

I don't recommend doing so because to me sneaking onto a neighbor's network is a form of trespassing. (Of course, if you ask your neighbor for permission to do so and they're cool with it, then no problemo.)

Several services attempt to consolidate open wireless access points into a nationwide and even worldwide network. The Open Wireless Movement is supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other leading open-Internet supporters. Wireless-network owners are invited to open all or part of their network to the public.

The group claims that most wireless bandwidth is squandered, that opening your network doesn't necessarily create a security risk, and that wireless routers with a "guest network" feature won't experience a performance hit as a result of allowing others to use the network.

The benefits of near-ubiquitous, free wireless Internet access more than compensate for any risks associated with operating an open wireless network, according to Open Wireless. Such an open network would enhance user privacy because people wouldn't have to rely on their smartphones as much, so their wireless carriers won't be able to track their location and activities. The organization also cites improved emergency services, economic benefits, and enhanced Internet access for poor people.

Shareair.net takes a similar approach by allowing wireless-network operators to register their network with the service, which provides maps plotting the location of open networks in countries around the world. Hover over a network location to view its name, a star rating, and how long ago the site was added to the Shareair.net database.

Shareair.net map of open wireless access points
Shareair.net's map of open Wi-Fi access points indicates the network name, a performance rating, and when the network was added to the service's database. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Whenever you use an unsecured, open wireless network it is imperative that you take precautions. In a post from February 2011 I described the free, OpenVPN-based SecurityKiss service that creates a secure tunnel when you connect to an unsecured network.

One of the tips in "How to secure your PC in 10 easy steps" from November 2011 explains how to use the Electronic Frontier Foundation's free HTTPS Everywhere browser add-on to encrypt your network connection.

Skip the Wi-Fi and try a tether
Rather than spend your time hunting around for a free Wi-Fi connection, you might find the fastest and simplest way to get your laptop online is by tethering your smart phone's data link. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon explain how to tether their devices, although doing so may require an additional fee (unless you're a Verizon customer, as mentioned below).

In a post from last June, Nicole Cozma describes how to use OpenGarden to share connectivity from your Android. Marguerite Reardon's FAQ from last August explains "What Verizon's FCC tethering settlement means to you."

You'll find more information on tethering in "Connect your Android device to the Internet via a PC" from last November, and "Use your phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot with Android-Wifi-Tether" from last December. ZDNet's James Kendrick provides a first-hand look at using long-term evolution (LTE) technology for wireless access in a post from last week entitled "The changing laptop landscape: Can I have LTE with that?"

The outlook for ubiquitous, free wireless access
Back in February a story by Cecilia Kang in the Washington Post caused quite a stir by suggesting that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission was planning a nationwide Wi-Fi supernetwork that would allow consumers to make free cell-phone calls and even make possible driverless cars, in addition to Internet access.

As Timothy Karr explained a couple days later in a post on the Save the Internet site, the FCC's plans for a public wireless network are more modest. (The Washington Post issued a clarification of the original story two days after it appeared.)

Once again eschewing the politics and economics surrounding public agencies providing Internet access directly to their constituents, the reality is that U.S. consumers will continue to pay more than citizens in other countries for Internet service that falls far below the quality offered elsewhere.

A coalition of public and private entities hopes to improve access to digital technologies for the millions of U.S. citizens who can't afford Internet access delivered to their homes. The Connect2Compete campaign was initiated by the FCC in 2011 and became an independent non-profit organization the following year.

To apply for a low-cost computer and discounted high-speed Internet access, enter your ZIP code and answer a series of questions, such as whether a child in your household is enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. You're then invited to apply for discounted Internet access and/or computers, such as a Windows PC for $150 or a laptop for $199.