Understanding Free WiFi

WiFi access is a fickle thing. Gone are the days of simply hopping onto a nearby unprotected “linksys” labeled network. Who bothered to configure their router? After all, you used to be able to plug it in and it just worked. No password, no problem. Even businesses often left their WiFi networks unprotected. Eventually, router manufacturers caught the hint. Consumers wanted two things. They wanted their home wireless networks to be secure, but they also wanted the setup process to remain just as simple as it had always been. So routers began shipping with a random SSID (network name) and a random password. A sticker on the router revealed both, so consumers could now add new devices to their networks by simply referring to the pre-established login information.

While this is great news for the security-minded, it now means that one cannot simply expect the presence of a WiFi network to mean free internet. In fact, completely free internet is a rare thing these days.

Free internet via WiFi comes in the following forms:

No password, no login – This is the simplest form of free WiFi. The network will have no password, and you will have internet access immediately.

No password, login page – You can log into the network, but before you can access the internet, you must first open a browser (Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, etc.). When the browser attempts to load your home page or any other web page, it will instead take you to a custom page where you must select a check box approving of the Terms of Use. You may find this kind of network at a WiFi-friendly airport, hotel, or other establishment that requires signing an agreement.

Password, no login – These WiFi networks are usually found in coffee shops or restaurants that provide free WiFi for customers only. By giving you the WiFi password at the cash register, they ensure that passers-by are unable to mooch off their bandwidth without paying the latté tax.

Password, login page – While still free, this type of WiFi network is obnoxiously cumbersome to use. To access the internet, you must first obtain the password for the network, usually at the register as explained above. Upon opening a browser after connected to the network, you must then approve of the conditions listed in the Terms of Use. Only then will you be allowed access to the information superhighway.

Sometimes, you will stumble across an unprotected network that requires payment at the login page. Joining the network may be free, but this does you no good as internet access requires a debit/credit card. Keep in mind that no matter what kind of public WiFi network you join, whether it be one of the four listed above or a pay to surf network, you are always taking a security risk. The innocent looking fellow hunched over his Macbook in the corner may not be perusing the twitterverse – he may be browsing through YOUR files. Before joining any public WiFi network, always ensure that your file sharing settings are set to a level you are comfortable with.


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