ups and downs of life in the new WiFi world
Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business
27-March 5, 2007; issue 905
Some tales from the WiFi Nation.
WiFi, the acronym for wireless networking, is built into virtually all
recent notebooks and has become commonplace in homes, cafés,
universities, hotel lobbies and meeting rooms for networking and
Vancouver has at least 200 free hotspots and about the same number of
pay services. It’s not available quite everywhere you might
Citywide WiFi is an attractive idea, promising affordable broadband
Internet access and an infrastructure for tourist, business, police and
civic employee use. Many municipal governments in the U.S. and Canada
have been investigating the idea; large scale implementations, however,
Vancouver city council recently discussed a staff report on
“options of pursuing a free or low-cost high-speed wireless
municipal network for the city. Options ranged from doing nothing to
having the city offer service as a public utility. Council opted to
work toward issuing a request for proposals for a private partnership
to build and operate such a network by 2010.
This fantasized citywide network would have come in handy for me
recently, when I was testing Belkin
new WiFi phone for Skype. The $269 unit looks like a sleek cellphone,
but instead of connecting to a mobile phone network, it connects to a
nearby WiFi router and logs onto the Skype service; Skype offers
Internet-based phone calls world-wide for about two cents a minute. No
PC is needed; the Belkin phone can go where you go and connect directly
to an available WiFi router. Call quality is generally good though it
can vary depending on WiFi signal strength and random Internet traffic.
It was straightforward to use with my existing Skype account and home
But take it out to a public hotspot and there may be problems. Most
hotspots, whether free or fee, require a browser-based login, and you
just can’t do that with this phone. I could make Skype phone
calls using my laptop at my neighbourhood web café, but not
using the phone.
A USB connector is included and can be used to charge the phone. I
would have liked to be able to use it to piggy-back off a laptop that
had logged into a hotspot, because it’s much nicer making
calls using this phone than talking into a computer headset.
All in all, a nice idea, but until usable WiFi connections become more
widespread, only a few will find it worthwhile.
Unless you’re in the executive-class lounge, airport WiFi
services are rarely free. If you fire up your laptop while waiting for
your flight and discover a hotspot listing itself as airport free
service, you probably should pass it up even if it mimics the network
name of a legitimate commercial service. It’s all too easy
someone to log on to the legitimate pay service, set their computer to
share the connection and then steal user names and passwords, or
otherwise compromise any computer that connects in. If you have file
sharing enabled on your laptop and you connect to them,
offering up all your stored documents.
According to reports in IT publication ComputerWorld
security company Authenticum
has found these ad hoc peer-to-peer networks in airports, including New
York’s LaGuardia and Chicago’s O’Hare.
Authenticum reported finding more than 20 such networks on each of
three separate visits to O’Hare, with most advertising free
connections while falsifying their network MAC addresses, a sign that
they were not legitimate.
Windows XP identifies such wireless peer-to-peer ad hoc networks as
“computer to computer” networks, compared with more
standard “wireless networks.” Using XP’s
wireless network settings, selecting an option labelled
point (infrastructure) networks only” will keep you from
accidentally connecting to these rogue networks. (In the same dialogue
box, be sure the “automatically connect to non-preferred
networks” is unchecked.)
If it’s free, watch out for the hidden price-tag.