Once upon a time—a little over a week ago as a matter of fact—I found myself in a northern suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, with this Web site to update and no broadband connection to help me do it.
This is the story of how yours truly, with her trusty Vaio-con-Wi-Fi adapter under her arm, remote access accounts for both Boingo and iPass on her desktop, a credit card in her pocket, and a pair of sturdy hiking shoes on her feet, made a half-mile trek to hot-spot heaven in search of broadband nirvana—and what she didnt find when she got there.
Dont get me wrong: Over the years, Ive come to love wireless hot spots. Theyve given me freedom—freedom from having to look up dial-up local access numbers whenever Im on the road, freedom from racing off to Radio Shack for a phone cord whenever Ive left mine at home (which I was wont to do BWF—before Wi-Fi), and, most of all, freedom from watching my life pass in front of me while trying to preview a Web page over dial-up or send an e-mail with a PowerPoint attachment.
Its not that I consider hot spots my friends. Those of us who wear Wi-Fi stripes tend to think of them more as a birthright. If God never wanted humankind to connect through hot spots, he wouldnt have allowed Intel to create Centrino, now would he? And so, those of us who dont have Centrino inside do have some form of Wi-Fi adapter. We tend to check the signal strength in our system trays as regularly as we do the time.
We are the undaunted and those of us who arent authenticating over EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) or launching some form of VPN are, well…just willing to hang the risk computing in the wild. Thankfully for us, retailers have discovered that we RF scions will go nearly anywhere for a signal and, along the path, spend cold, hard cash on any number of retail purchases.
Unfortunately for them, were not everyone. Retailers dont offer Wi-Fi out of the goodness of their hearts. The profit motive looms large. But profits could be higher if hot spots werent such a no mans land of tech support when something happens to go wrong.
: Flying Solo”> Now, mind you, I live and breathe by the hot spots whenever Im on the road. But many times I compute alone.
One friend of mine, a high-tech power user in his own right, recently admitted as I told him of my recent travails that hes never used his laptops (nor even his PDAs) wireless capabilities while on the road.
“The security risks just seemed too high,” he said. “And what happens when the signal is poor?”
Normally about that time, I would have shifted into my security-shouldnt-be-an-issue-if-you-use-a-VPN rap or begun singing my use-iPass-or-Boingo-they-solve-a-lot-of-headaches song.
When it comes to remote access, Im a believer in VPNs and aggregators as the best and most readily available providers. iPass is upping the ante for enterprises on the security side with its Policy Orchestration security program, and now we have T-Mobile deploying 802.1x security for its customers.
But the “who you gonna call” factor is the stumbling block. More than once, Ive found hot spots where all thats hot is the coffee. And help? The counter help can tell you all about what goes into a great decaf latte but Wi-Fi? A clerk at Starbucks once told me “its got something to do with the Internet. I dont know anything about it. They just told me they have it here.”
Which brings us back to our story. On that fine Monday morning in Cincinnati, my hot-spot experience showed me just how on-point my friends concerns are and how far hot spots still have to go.
By 8 a.m. I was power-hiking down to one of many strip malls, in a suburb where strip malls proliferate, to visit Panera Bread, which promised free latte on Mondays and free Wi-Fi every day of the week. I collected my free latte, bought a bagel so as not to appear a total freeloader, found a table near an outlet, powered up the Vaio and settled back for a morning of productivity.
The sight of the other Wi-Fi denizens packing up their lattes and laptops should have been my first clue. No signal. “No problem,” I smugly chuckled to myself, eyeing yet another strip mall across the street. “Theres a Borders over there with a T-Mobile hot spot.”
So I finished my free latte, hiked over to the Borders Café, ordered a coffee for good measure, found a table near a wall outlet, powered up the Vaio and prepared to be productive.
And I was—for exactly two hours and 45 minutes during which time I finished two more coffees. Then, suddenly, AOL Instant Messenger popped up to tell me it was trying to reconnect. It couldnt. What? T-Mobile has never failed me before. It was surely just a glitch. I only needed to get to the bottom of it. Fortunately over the years Ive learned to troubleshoot most of my own problems at hot spots.
: Zeroing Out “> The two pair of computers in my system tray that indicate active Wi-Fi and VPN connections had both disappeared. I clicked into iPass, which Id used to log on. No sign of a wireless network in the vicinity. So I rolled up my sleeves and invoked Windows Wireless Zero Configuration to reset. No soap. Reboot? I tried it. Nada. Just for grins I clicked on iPass to see if somehow it could identify the network when Windows couldnt. It did.
I was good to go for about 45 minutes—and another cup of coffee, this time accompanied by a scone— and then gremlins entered the Net and kicked me off everything but AIM.
“The networks down. Whats the problem?” called out the customer next to me who sat at his laptop with a cup of soup of the day, a grilled turkey sandwich and a stack of books he intended to buy.
What, indeed? Wi-Fi access should be as plug-and-play as anything else on a computer, and it isnt. Believe me, nothing makes the counter helps eyes glaze over faster than mention of the phrase, Zero Config. I ordered another cup of coffee, instead.
I suggested to my neighbor that he might want to reboot. “Ill just go across the street to Panera Bread,” he said, “they have free Wi-Fi over there and the lattes free on Mondays.”
“But the Wi-Fis not working,” I told him.
“Yes it is, I just came from there,” he said.
“So why did you come here?”
“I like the soup.”
With that, he left, stopping by the cashier to pay for his books.
Evidently, whatever had been wrong at Panera had been fixed, so I closed up the Vaio, ordered a cup of coffee to go, and stopped by the magazine rack on my way out.
I couldnt leave without checking out the latest CD and DVD offerings. Now wouldnt you know, there was the collected first-and-second season of televisions best-ever commedy—”The Office”—just begging to go home with me and, around the corner, that Classic Sinatra CD Id been wanting happened to be at the listening station and, well, it sounded so good.
When I got to Panera Bread, sure enough, there was no signal. I resisted the temptation to tell my fellow traveler Id told him so and ordered lunch instead.
Back to Borders. Hey! Hey! Hey! Everything worked. I celebrated with a cup of coffee, contemplated heading to the strip mall down the street after work to check out the shoe sale at Lazarus, and tallied this latest hot-spot experience:
- Bagel: 79 cents
- Coffee (four cups): $14.76
- “The Office, The Complete First and Second Series”: $59.99
- “Classic Sinatra, His Great Performances, 1953-1960”: $15.29
- Smokehouse Turkey Panini with diet soda: $4.39
- Wi-Fi without resorting to Zero Config: priceless.
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