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Find Free and Inexpensive Wi-Fi

by Glenn Fleishman

Wi-Fi signals increasingly fill the air around us, and many of the electronic devices we carry with us support Wi-Fi. So why pay for Wi-Fi when you need to access the Internet while out and about? Occasionally, a for-fee Wi-Fi service may be the only option, but even then we can help you get the most out of a service for the lowest cost.

It has been eight years since I started writing about public Wi-Fi, where venues from cafés and airports to libraries and car-repair shops have been offering Wi-Fi-supplied Internet access. And although these publicly available Wi-Fi networks make up only a small fraction of the tens of millions of Wi-Fi networks worldwide, a few tips will help you find free or at least cheap connectivity when you need it, whether you're running errands around your hometown or are roaming the open road.

You could also use a Wi-Fi hotspot directory like that offered by JiWire, or a Wi-Fi discovery tool like Devicescape's Easy WiFi, which also manages Wi-Fi logins and network passwords for you. This article is about strategy, though: figuring out what networks you can use, rather than what's around you. JiWire offers a searchable Web site [1] and the free Wi-Fi Finder iPhone app [2]; Devicescape has a map-based Web site [3] for entering addresses, and the proximity-based free Easy WiFi iPhone app.

(This article focuses on the United States, which I know best. Please let us know about free Wi-Fi in other countries in the comments.)

Café and Retail Store Wi-Fi -- If you walk down a street in most cities, you'll find free Wi-Fi in many coffee shops and restaurants. But if you're in an unfamiliar part of town, or visiting a city new to you, looking for some specific stores will likely be more productive than wandering around randomly.

Some restaurant and hotel chains went free years ago, when it was seen as a way to stand out from the deal Starbucks and others were offering at the time. Others just got the free religion and eschewed charging from the very beginning.

Starbucks was the first chain to commit to offering Wi-Fi, and I broke the news [4] on the very first locations to test service in Seattle in May 2001. The chain, through its first partner (which went bankrupt) and second (T-Mobile), charged for access for 7 years after the initial rollout.

But that changed in 2008, when Starbucks switched from T-Mobile to AT&T. Starbucks said it would still charge for service, but would provide 2 hours of continuous free Wi-Fi for regular users of its stored-value Starbucks Card. The card lets you load money, like a gift card, but associates other benefits with the account, rewarding you when you reloading it with more money. Add money or make a purchase to activate 30 days of Wi-Fi service.

Starbucks modified this in late 2009 to require just a single purchase on a Starbucks Card ever, and then dropped even that requirement on 1 July 2010. Wi-Fi access as of that date is free [5], and requires only that you click a button to agree of terms of service. You can then surf indefinitely in any of its 6,700 company-owned stores.

McDonald's, which had charged for Wi-Fi in its stores - $2.95 for 2 hours - since launching 5 years ago, decided to switch off the fee in mid-January 2010. About 11,500 of 14,000 McDonald's in the United States have Wi-Fi [6]. McDonald's rolled out a coffee bar, McCafe, in many of its stores, and free Wi-Fi appears to be part of the battleground between it and Starbucks.

Other large national chains with free or inexpensive Wi-Fi include Apple retail stores (naturally!), Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Panera Bread. For a list of all the chains with a varying amount of Wi-Fi - some in all stores, some requiring a store purchase - consult the Wi-Fi Free Spot chain directory page [7].

Oddly, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Subway, and most other so-called quick-service restaurants haven't adopted Wi-Fi as a chain-wide idea, although you may find Wi-Fi for free in some locations.

Other Free Location Types -- Outside of the restaurant and retail stores, you might check into a hotel - a hotel lobby, at least. Many hotels provide free Wi-Fi in the reception area or main lounge. Just as you can go into a hotel and get a drink at the bar most times, you can also pop in and use the free Wi-Fi without needing a code. (Quite a few hotels also give guests free in-room Wi-Fi or Ethernet-based access, either included in the price of the room or when you are a member of a free affinity club.)

The counterintuitive rule of thumb is that the cheaper the hotel, the more likely it is to offer free Internet access. Expensive hotels, the sort that charge upwards of $150 per night, tend to tack on $10 to $15 per night fees for all-inclusive Internet, calling, and faxing. ("Daddy, what's a fax?")

Nearly all airports that added Wi-Fi-based Internet access charged for it initially, but that has slowly been changing. Denver is the largest airport to date with free service - it's filtered [8] and shows ads - but Seattle-Tacoma went free in January 2010, and Atlanta is considering free service. Many mid-tier airports, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sacramento, already have free Wi-Fi.

Public libraries in most cities now offer free Internet access at a main branch, and commonly at regional branches, too. Some libraries restrict access to patrons, requiring a library card and ID to log in, or limit use to an hour or two. There are now so many branch libraries with Wi-Fi that sites listing such locations aren't reliably comprehensive. Consult your favorite search engine to find the library site for the city you're in or visiting, and then drill down to find which branches have Internet service.

The most glorious place in the United States to use library Wi-Fi is within the main branch of the New York Public Library, which transformed its Beaux-Arts Edna Barnes Salomon Room [9] in July 2009 into an Internet reading room with capacity for 128 people. (Oddly, there are no AC outlets!)

Cities and towns and community groups have also unwired public parks, squares, and downtown areas to make those locations more attractive to resident and visitor use. California and a few other states have even put Wi-Fi transmitters in campgrounds, assuming that a few minutes without Internet service might make vacationing Silicon Valley techies lose their minds.

One of the best-known parks with Internet access is adjacent to the New York Public Library's central 42nd Street location noted above: Bryant Park [10]. Once the epitome of neglect in Manhattan, and a haunt only of drug dealers and prostitutes, Bryant Park was reborn in 1992, and has become one of the loveliest parts of midtown Manhattan. Free Wi-Fi access was put in place by a community wireless group in 2002, and has changed hands a few times since.

The town or city hall in many municipalities may also offer free Wi-Fi access, although your ability to sit down and plug in a laptop could be limited.

Free Wi-Fi Networks from Broadband Providers -- AT&T, Cablevision, Qwest, and Verizon all offer their wired broadband customers free access to certain Wi-Fi networks, most of which are typically for-fee services. In addition, AT&T gives iPhone, BlackBerry, and laptop data users access to the same networks. (Comcast and Road Runner remain the biggest broadband firms that don't currently bundle some kind of Wi-Fi service, but Comcast is rumored to have a plan in the works.)

Inexpensive Subscriptions -- You can also opt to pay for a pool of Wi-Fi via an aggregator, a firm that signs agreements with thousands of separate Wi-Fi network providers and bundles this into one account and one recurring bill.

This used to be hugely expensive for average users who couldn't write off Internet access as a business expense, ranging from $30 to $60 per month, often with a one-year commitment or other fees. Now, with the iPhone data plan costing $15 or $25 per month in the United States, and more routine use of 3G laptop cards that carry $60 per month data plans, those rates don't seem so bad - but subscription prices have also dropped.

Wait! There's More -- I can't pretend this is a comprehensive list, with tens of thousands of known hotspots in the United States, and likely tens of thousands more that aren't documented. Still, this should help you find some cheap connections while you travel about this holiday season and beyond.