Finding WIFI hotspots while traveling is not uncommon. It’s a great way to connect to broadband internet, specially in urban area’s. However getting connected to a WIFI hotspot isn’t always so easy, there can be quite a few hurdles. Here’s an overview of the most common issues.
Finding broadband WIFI hotspots and access points
One of the first hurdles is finding a WIFI hotspot / access point. WIFI signals are short range by definition and only cover 500-1000 feet or a few hundred meters on average.
WIFI hotspot access point directories can help a bit, however in less traveled regions it’s usually not. Local internet forums sometimes talk about public WIFI hotspots or local forum members tend to know a few in their area. When there’s no internet access to do any preparation – WIFI scanners in smart phones (iPhone, Nokia N95 8Gb) can be a big help.
Nokia N95 8Gb smart phone with WIFI - perfect for detecting WIFI hotspots
Once a WIFI network is found, the next problem is to find a place to sit down. Not always easy, specially when it’s a highly popular internet hotspot, like a café or bar. Also AC mains outlet and a bit of privacy would be nice.
Once settled down within range of the WIFI hotspot, the next hurdle is getting access to the WIFI network.
Getting connected to broadband WIFI hotspots and access points
Getting access to WIFI hotspots varies from easy to quite a challenge. The most obvious hurdle is access point encryption – simply put one needs a key to gain access. Others are usually technical issue’s of which the most obvious one is being just outside WIFI signal range.
The UAE government heavily filters the internet
Being connected to a WIFI hotspot is no guarantee for a working internet connection. The ISP behind the WIFI hotspot can have a patchy track record or Internet is limited by either commercial (no Skype access) or government filtering. Also WIFI access points can easily be run by rogue individuals. Commercial hotspots usually do not require WIFI encryption keys. Internet access is managed on network level requiring advance payment. Be very careful with online payment systems for internet access.
Once connected the next thing is to have a bit of security in place to keep your data yours.
Secure access to broadband WIFI hotspots and access points
Even when the WIFI network is encrypted with WPA of WEP keys, your network traffic can easily be monitored. Either behind the access point by rogue individuals or by WIFI wave snoopers joining the same WIFI hotspot network. What can be seen by others? In short: everything whats goes in and out. However, those who tend to monitor traffic trap interesting bits like usernames, passwords etc.
Although simple web (mail) access through a HTTPS session usually provides enough security. Those who connect direct to POP / SMTP mail servers through Outlook or similar better make sure e-mail sessions are protected by (SSL) encryption.
The best defense is using your own encryption, like VPN.
VPN encrypts your internet traffic and bypasses monitoring
Next to this, virus infected computers on the same local WIFI network can try and exploit flaws in the operating system and internet browser. The best defense here is keeping your OS and browser up to date (download updates) mixed with an active and updated firewall.
Those who can keep an eye on you in public places might be able to exploit the situation. Seeing you enter your credit card numbers to pay for WIFI hotspot access might later result in an attempt to temporarily own your CC numbers. Even by luring you into entering CC details on a temporarily installed (fake) WIFI hotspot – which could easily be operated from a suitcase.
It’s frustrating to suddenly loose your internet connection through a WIFI hotspot. Specially when connected over a large distance, it’s not uncommon. High power WIFI hardware might help, but not without the equal amount of antenna sensitivity.
Also moving around a bit – even on the same table – can just make the difference due to signal reflections.
Bountifiul 1000mW access point - WIFI power to the FCC limit
When a better antenna or transmit power doesn’t help the only way is moving closer to the WIFI hotspot. Though more powerful WIFI hotspot hardware can cover a larger area.
With internet access through a WIFI hotspot up and running, time is ticking unless there’s access to AC mains. Some laptops have extra batteries for media bays (like the DELL Latitude series) doubling power capacity.
Inside a laptop battery - 6 Lithium Ion cells providing power to your laptop
For those who run laptops from battery systems in a mobile home – it’s better to leave the laptop battery out so the home battery power only goes to the laptop, not the laptop battery. Well known in the truckers world are 24 volt DC-DC step-down converters – these eliminate the power consuming AC-DC inverter from the power chain.
Also wind and solar power can provide extra power although these are quite expensive and especially voluminous.
Laptop power consumption can also be optimized to a great extend.