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Quick Reference: Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

What Is Wi-Fi

A way to get Internet access, the term Wi-Fi is a play upon the decades-old term HiFi that describes the type of output generated by quality musical hardware. Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity and is used to define any of the wireless technology in the IEEE 802.11 specification - including (but not necessarily limited to) the wireless protocols 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. The Wi-Fi Alliance is the body responsible for promoting the term and its association with various wireless technology standards.

What Are Wi-Fi Hotspots?

A Wi-Fi hotspot is defined as any location in which 802.11 (wireless) technology both exists and is available for use to consumers. In some cases the wireless access is free, and, in others, wireless carriers charge for Wi-Fi usage. A hotspot is defined as a specific geographic location in which an access point provides public wireless broadband network services to mobile visitors through a WLAN. Hotspots are often located in heavily populated places such as airports, train stations, libraries, marinas, conventions centers and hotels. Hotspots typically have a short range of access.

To use Wi-Fi, you must be using a computer or PDA that has Wi-Fi connectivity. Newer handhelds, notebooks and tablet PCs will come equipped with Wi-Fi, or you can add Wi-Fi capabilities by using an adapter that plugs into a PC card slot or USB port.

Public Hotspots

Hotels, restaurants, airports and other businesses offer wireless LAN (hotspot) connectivity to met the growing demand of mobile business professionals and typically allow those connected to do things like access the World Wide Web, use e-mail, instant messaging, and other Internet services. There are generally two types of public hotspots; those which are free to use by anyone and subscription-based hotspots where you need to register an account before using.

To connect to a free public hotspot all you need to do is move within range of the network and your Wi-Fi card will automatically connect. Subscription-based hotspot accounts work similar to mobile phone accounts, and are usually a time-based subscription service. Once you have registered an account with the provider you access their hotspot in the same way that you would connect to any wireless network. When using subscription-based services if you go over your allotted time for your specific plan, you will usually pay a higher per minute rate for connectivity.

Are Public Hotspots Secure?

A public hotspot is not nearly as secure as your corporate or home network. In fact, most public hotspots don't offer any security at all, making these types of wireless networks inherently "unsecure." This is because encryption methods such as WEP and WPA, which are usually used to protect private wireless networks, aren't implemented due to the complexities of supporting users. For security and privacy reasons there are some precautions and things to consider when connecting to a public hotspot to make your connection more secure.

Webopedia: The Difference Between WEP and WPA
Wi-Fi Planet: Wi-Fi Hotspot Security: The Issues



A firewall will help protect your laptop by preventing other users from gaining access to your computer through the wireless network.

Access Point

The access point is where the wireless network links to the wired system. If you enable an access point to allow only certain connections you will not connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots unintentionally and also will prevent unauthorized users from connecting to your notebook or PC.


It is recommended that business professionals connect to their office VPN before accessing or sending information over a public hotspot. The encryption offered by the VPN will prevent others from reading any data you transmit.

Passwords and File Sharing

To prevent unauthorized access to your own system you should disable file and printer sharing, otherwise your system is venerable to hackers and malicious users. Also, making your folders private and password protecting your files will also make it harder for malicious users to access your files.


Be sure your anti-virus is enabled and that it and your operating system are up-to-date.

Unintentional Connections

When in public areas you should turn off your wireless so you do not unknowingly connect to a free public hotspot.

Terms to Know: Wi-Fi

ad-hoc mode
access point
evil twin
rogue access point

Webopedia > Mobile Computing > Wireless Computing

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