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    The ups and downs of life in the new WiFi world

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver February 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 Internet access.

    Vancouver has at least 200 free hotspots and about the same number of pay services. It’s not available quite everywhere you might want it, however.

    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, are rare.

    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’s 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 WiFi connection.

    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 Skype 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 for 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, you’re 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 WiFi 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 advanced wireless network settings, selecting an option labelled “access 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.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan