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Find Free and Inexpensive Wi-Fi

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 and the free Wi-Fi Finder iPhone app; Devicescape has a map-based Web site 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 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, 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. 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.

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 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 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. 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.)

  • AT&T: If you subscribe to nearly any AT&T fixed or mobile broadband service, Wi-Fi access at over 21,000 U.S. locations is thrown in at no additional cost. That’s nearly 40 million subscribers in all. Any AT&T DSL or fiber (U-Verse) customer is included, as well as most of its business subscribers. Mobile broadband subscribers who use 3G laptop USB sticks or cards are also included.
  • For smartphone users, only access via the iPhone, BlackBerry, or Windows Mobile phone is included. This is also true for 3G iPad owners with an active AT&T 3G subscription. Software updates on each platform try to make the login process automatic, switching from 3G to Wi-Fi without requiring any user intervention.

    AT&T’s deal may not seem as sweet as it once did, because the majority of its locations now have no fee: Starbucks, McDonald’s Barnes & Noble, and a few others.

    However, AT&T operates or has deals in most North American airports that feature for-fee Wi-Fi, where you would otherwise pay from $5 to $10 for a 24-hour session, as well in hotels that charge $10 to $15 per night for service.

  • Verizon: A few months ago, Verizon made Wi-Fi hotspots available to some of its customers in a highly restrictive way. First, you have to have Windows (one of several versions). Second, you must run the VZAccess Manager software to connect to hotspots. Third, it works only on laptops, not desktops. Fourth, only a few thousand hotspots are included. Fifth, only customers paying for 3 Mbps or faster DSL and 20 Mbps fiber qualify. A few days ago, Verizon added laptop 3G customers, but not smartphone users. Mac OS X users are left out in the cold.
  • Cablevision: The Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey cable provider has long pushed hard to offer fast cable modem speeds, but the firm surprised a lot of its customers by announcing it would build a huge outdoor Wi-Fi network covering much of its territory in cities and towns. The network is complete in many areas, and free (and only available) to its cable broadband subscribers. (Cablevision built this network in part to challenge Verizon’s fiber FiOS network by providing something Verizon didn’t offer until recently.)
  • Comcast and Time Warner Cable: Two other cable giants have launched small efforts of their own, with the clear impression that larger networks are coming. Subscribers on Cablevision’s, Comcast’s, and Time Warner Cable’s broadband networks can use hotspots on any of the other cable networks at no charge.
  • Qwest: Piggybacking on AT&T’s network, Qwest offers its DSL customers the same 21,000-hotspot network. Again, this perk isn’t as valuable as it once was given that most of the included locations are free.

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.

  • Boingo Wireless: Boingo, founded by long-time friend of TidBITS Sky Dayton – also the founder of EarthLink – provides unlimited North American hotspot access for $9.95 per month on a laptop or global access for $7.95 on a smartphone, billed on a recurring basis, but without a contract required beyond each month. A combo plan with the same account is $17.90 per month – no discount, but less to manage. (Boingo’s Global account is $59 per month and includes 2,000 minutes of use anywhere in its worldwide aggregated network.)
  • To use Boingo on a laptop, you install a lightweight software package that notifies you whenever a Boingo hotspot is nearby and gives you the option to log in. On a smartphone, you install software that manages the login process. The Boingo software for iPhone OS (which works with the iPod touch, too) requires that you launch the program at the hotspot to establish a connection.

    As I noted in regards to AT&T’s network earlier, with Starbucks and McDonald’s no longer charging, Boingo might seem less useful. However, I’ve found that there are plenty of locations, including hotels, airports, cafés, and conference centers, where I’m happy to have the subscription instead of paying a one-time hourly or day rate or having no access.

  • iPass: iPass primarily provides single-bill connectivity for corporations with traveling employees, where hundreds to thousands of users can be centrally managed. iPass also allows users to use their corporate logins and can require the use of a VPN and firewall software when connecting remotely. However, the company also has an iPhone connection app. (iPass sold laptop access for individuals directly not long ago, but now you have to turn to a reseller for that service.)
  • The iPass plan – either $6.95 per month with a one-year contract, or $9.95 per month with no contract – includes 1,200 minutes of access per month and costs $0.20 per minute thereafter anywhere in its worldwide network.

    The problem at the moment? The company is updating its iPhone software, and has pulled a previous release, although the Web site doesn’t mention this. Check back later.

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.

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