BOOT CAMP 547 (21/10/08)

Mobile Broadband, part 3


We’re looking at broadband without wires and in this episode we’re focusing on Wi-Fi. Next week we turn our attention to 3G systems that use mobile phone networks, so without more ado let’s have a go at untangling the technology.


Wi-Fi is a short-range – typically 10–50 metres – high-speed data communications system operating on the 2.4GHz frequency band. The first Wi-Fi devices appeared around 10 years ago but it didn’t really take off until 2002/3 and by 2007 almost all new notebook and laptop PCs had Wi-FI adaptors fitted as standard.


There are many different flavours of Wi-Fi but the most widespread systems are designated 802.11b and 802.11g and devices are largely compatible with one another. A new faster system called 802.11n is being rolled out but isn’t expected to be very widely used for another year or so and an older system, known as 802.11a, is now obsolete, so keep an eye on the letters if you are buying very new or older second-hand equipment. There are some minor differences in 802.11b/g channel allocations between Europe the US and Japan, and sometimes devices can get a bit confused though in practice it shouldn’t cause too many problems.    


The situation now is that there are several million – no one really knows how many – public Wi-Fi access points around the world. I would say that roughly a third to a half of them are free to use, or free if you are a patron of the establishment where the hotspot is located, such as a hotel or café. Otherwise you’ll have to pay to connect, by a monthly or annual subscription or make a one-off payment with your credit card.


You can save yourself a lot of effort and expense if you know the location of free hotspots before you travel. Websites like and cover most major towns and cities and are a good place to start.


Security has the potential to be a major issue but all Wi-Fi adaptors. All routers and access points have WEP or WPA encryption facilities built in and this is strong enough to keep out all but the most determined and well-resourced intruders. However, a lot of free and commercial networks have their own encryption or security features, which work for them, but may leave your PC vulnerable whilst connected, so make sure that you have effective anti-virus and firewall programs installed on your PC. See also this week’s Top Tip.


Logging on to a Wi-Fi access point or hotspot is usually quite straightforward and normally no more difficult than connecting to your home wireless router. XP and Visa laptops have a wireless connection icon in the System tray (next to the clock). The standard icon looks the same as the twin monitor icon used for wired (Ethernet) connections, though a lot of machines have their own proprietary wireless management utilities, so consult the manual if in doubt and make sure you know how to use it before you set out on your travels.


The usual procedure is to right-click on the connection icon and select the ‘View available wireless networks’ or ‘Connect to a network’ option. This opens a dialogue box showing all of the wireless networks in the vicinity, along with their SSID or network name, whether or not they are security enabled and a simple, bargraph showing relative signal strength. To connect to a network double click on the name and if encryption is enabled, you will be asked to enter the key given to you by the hotspot operator.


Otherwise, if the access point is shown as ‘open’ click on the icon and after a few seconds Windows says you are connected. Open a browser window you will see one of two things. If the hotspot is completely free your usual browser’s home page will be displayed and you can surf the web and pick up your emails as normal. If it’s a monitored, subscription or paid-for service you will see a sign-on page, where you agree to the conditions of use, enter your subscriber code or tap in your credit card details.


That’s more or less it and you should now be able to use your laptop as normal. If you cannot get a connection here’s a few things to try. Check the signal strength, if you are only getting one or two bars, or the indicator jumps up and down you are too far away from the router or access point. If signal strength is good and steady then try temporarily disabling your firewall or any security features built into your anti-virus program, however, and this is vitally important, do not forget to switch them back on again as soon as you have established a connection. In theory it shouldn’t matter if someone nearby is also using a wi-fi laptop or wireless device, but it can sometimes have an effect, so move away. Finally, don’t waste time letting Windows try to fix a failed connection. It rarely works, it’s usually much quicker, and often more successful to simply reboot and start again.    


Next Week – Mobile Broadband, part 3





Post Office Protocol 3, system used to receive emails sent to Internet servers



Simple Mail Transfer Protocol - system used to send email messages to Internet servers



Wired Equivalent Privacy & Wi-Fi Protected Access. Encryption systems used to secure data on wireless networks, theoretically providing the same level of security as a cabled network connection



Watch out for so-called ‘Evil Twin’ hotspots, which mimic the appearance of legitimate access points. Once connected to the bogus network it is possible for someone to steal information from your PC that could be used for identity theft. There’s no easy way to identify an Evil Twin Phishing access point, but in cafes and restaurants keep an eye out for shady-looking characters with a laptop sporting unusual looking aerials sitting nearby or in a parked car. A good two-way firewall will alert you to any attempts to gain access to your machine.


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