Access Points Dont Tell the Whole Story

Hot spots won't heat up until secure, pay-as-you-go service comes online

Wireless hot spots are springing up all over the country in coffee shops, bookstores, airports, hotels, university campuses—and now, fast food chains, too—to provide visitors the freedom of mobile Internet access using their notebooks or handheld devices.

But I do not see a compelling reason to bring my laptop to the corner Starbucks and check my corporate e-mail over a WiFi connection. Why? Because I am concerned with security and interoperability issues associated with WiFi. There isnt any clear-cut definition of the security level I am getting when using the connection provided by a fast-food chain or a bookstore.

I also dont want to be fiddling with my laptop settings, trying to authenticate to a Starbucks access point, when all I really want is a mocha or a scone. Being able to check e-mail or surf the Web at the same time is great, but thats not the reason I patronize the place.

Early this month, Intel conducted a survey to rank the top 100 U.S. cities or regions with the best wireless Internet accessibility. The Portland, Ore., metropolitan area was ranked No. 1 and my neighborhood, the San Francisco Bay Area, came in second in the country in terms of wireless Internet access.

Since Im living in the city with the second-largest number of wireless hot spots in the nation, I thought maybe I should give all that access a try (but only use the connection for casual Web browsing so I wouldnt have to worry too much about security).

I went to T-Mobiles Web site (T-Mobile is the service provider for wireless hot spots at the Starbucks and Borders in the Bay Area) to see how much it would cost to use the wireless connection at these hot spots. T-Mobile provides several WiFi service plans, from annual membership, to monthly service, to prepaid and pay-as-you-go metered plans.

It is great that T-Mobile provides customers with a choice of service plans, but Id still have to use different service providers for different wireless hotspots. For example, I could not use T-Mobile at any hotels in the city.

Clearly, having a ton of access points doesnt tell the whole story: To really be useful, wireless hot spots need defined security policies and providers must offer some form of on-site pay-to-use system.

McDonalds today announced that 10 restaurants in the metropolitan New York area will offer 1 hour of free wireless Internet access at new hot spots in these restaurants with a purchase of an Extra Value Meal. The company also announced plans to extend wireless Internet access to 300 restaurants all over New York, Chicago and an unnamed California city by the end of this year.

Maybe I will look into wireless hotspots again when McDonalds opens a wireless hot spot in the Bay Area, or when I upgrade my laptop to a system with Intels Centrino chip set.

Wireless hot spots maybe a good way to promote the sale of notebooks with built-in WiFi, but when it comes to efficient, secure and hassle-free Internet access, I think Ill stick to the high-speed cable service at home. In the meantime, I will continue to read magazines at Borders, get my coffee at Starbucks to go, and get to the airport extra early to ensure that I can pass security checks with my laptop.

Are you looking to log in to a wireless hot spot in your area? Let me know at