Wireless for All: Free WiFi Hotspots a Growing Trend

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Wireless hotspots are popping up fast at restaurants, parks, stores, hotels, airports, and a wide and motley assortment of other places throughout the U.S. Also on the rise are online resources for finding them. Luckily, in today’s tough economy, increasing numbers of these hotspots are available free of charge.

A wireless hotspot can act as a convenient source of Web access when you’re traveling, of course. But it can also come in handy if your cable or DSL connection at home suddenly goes down — or even if your budget can no longer withstand a $60-or-so monthly fee for 3G wireless during these recessionary times.

The sheer numbers of public Wi-Fi locations grew 2.6% from the last quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2010, to reach of total of 71,628, according to JWire’s latest Mobile Audience Insights Report.WiFi Exactly 42.5% of these WiFi hotspots are free, an increase of 5.2%.

Although many folks must have heard about the free Internet access at McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble by now, hotspots in many locales are far lesser known. Fortunately, searchable directories of airport, public, and other types of hotspots are springing up online.

Some of these hotspots use encryption to secure your data, whereas others do not. To use an unencrypted network such as Starbuck’s AT&T WiFi Hotspot, all you need for hardware and software is some kind of PC – a laptop, a tablet, or even a smartphone — outfitted with a Web browser and a WiFi connection. You’ll also need to get the name of the WiFi network for selecting it from the list of available networks in the WiFi software on your PC.

If the hotspot is encrypted, on the other hand, you’ll also require a network password, which will typically be provided to you by whoever is running the hotspot.

Be aware that if you’re using a free and unencrypted WiFi link, eavesdropping can pose a risk. So if you’re stopping by at a local McDonald’s to grab a burger and do a bit of work, you should run the WiFi over your company’s virtual private network (VPN) if the data is at all sensitive. Your employer can give you the VPN software for doing that.

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