Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
[Note: those breathlessly awaiting the exciting conclusion to last month's epic of domain theft will have to seek supplemental oxygen - the saga is still unfolding. Next month will hopefully see the details of the lawsuit, the trip to Seattle to confront the perpetrator, and the results of the trial. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here's some info for all the road warriors out there.]
Being wireless is both a blessing and a curse for many people. We are blessed with the ability to commune with the infinite, er, Internet, un-tethered. We have slipped the surly bonds of cables plugged into ports and are free to glide about on gossamer wings of Wi-Fi.
We are cursed when we find ourselves out of broadcast range of the nearest transmitter, and crash disconsolately back to earth, tragically off-line. Rats. I hate when that happens.
(Incidentally, this is going to be one of those articles we can look back on from 10 years hence, and chuckle at the primitiveness of it all. In the future, Wi-Fi will be as common as running water. 10 years from now I'll be writing about wireless telepathy or something, but I digress...)
WiFi and Fiber-Free
Some basics for the befuddled: Wi-Fi is the common name of a protocol called 802.11b/g, which specifies how laptops communicate with broadcast devices in order to connect to the Internet. You have a chip or card installed in your laptop (or desktop - I have clients who use this instead of running network wires all over their homes) which talks to an Access Point (AP). The AP is a radio sender/receiver which plugs into the Internet in the usual way, and sends its connectivity goodness off to those in range of its antennae. A place within range of an AP is called a hotspot. (A trendy nightclub is called a hot spot; try not to confuse these when you are traveling for business.)
Business folk are now not tied to their home offices for Internet-based behaviors. If you are on the road and wander into a Starbucks or most hotels these days, you can get connected to an AP and check your email, surf the web, or whatever. But it might cost you. Everything is viewed as a profit center these days, and lots of spots will charge you for the privilege of hitting the web while drinking over-priced coffee. I call this slurp 'n' surf.
Let's say you're on the road and looking for a place to hook up and do some email. Where to find a hotspot? Coffee shops and restaurants in hotels are usually safe bets. Starbucks, Schlotzsky's Deli and Panera Bread all offer Wi-Fi in most of their stores. Starbucks charges for the service via T-Mobile, but Panera and Schlotzsky's are free. URLs for these stores and other companies mentioned are listed at the end of this article.
Your hotel or motel is a good place to start. When traveling to Mackinaw Island last year, I was pleased to discover the 118-year old Grand Hotel has wireless. (Although they turned it off at night when their computer staff went home - go figure.) It's quite the experience to sit on the grand porch and surf the web, while surrounded by horse-drawn carriages and liveried staff. When traveling, inquire of your prospective hotel when you make your reservation as to Internet and Wi-Fi access, and complain bitterly if it isn't offered. This isn't rocket science and it isn't expensive to implement; all hotels should have this.
Other good sources are libraries and universities. Here in Ann Arbor, you have to be a student, staff, or faculty member to use the UM wireless system. But the Ann Arbor library Wi-Fi is free, you just have to register and get a guest code.
Some towns and cities are starting to provide free Wi-Fi in various parks, squares, and other public places. Google your destination's name with the keyword Wi-Fi and see what comes up.
Whip Out Your TriCorder, Mr. Spock
One fun way to find hotspots is with a little device called the WiFiSeeker. This is a $30 doodad that hooks on to your keychain. You push the button and LEDs light up to show you the presence of a spot.
You can also use your laptop to seek spots. There are a bunch of utilities available on the 'Net that do this; search on Wi-Fi Software and a bunch of Mac and PC programs show up. And of course, the field strength indicator software built into your laptop can be used for this.
Remember that most information sent over Wi-Fi is not encoded, and hackers amuse themselves by tapping into communications at coffee shops. You can get around this by using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) email. Your ISP may not provide this service (the U of M insists on it), so you may have to use another provider while on the road, if you are concerned with security. Most email apps support this, including Eudora, Outlook, etc.
If you want to surf the web securely, you can use a company such as Secure-Tunnel to protect your browsing. They provide an encrypted means of concealing your web activities.
You can also use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to protect yourself. There are many companies on the Web offering this, and your own corporate IT dept. may offer it (or even insist on it).
There are now 3 big hotspot providers in the US: Boingo (lots of airports), SBC FreedomLink (bookstores, cafes), and T-Mobile (lots of Starbucks). They all charge $8-$10 a day for connections, and around $20 a month. Signing up gets you connected in the various venues they support, and they provide lists of available hotspots. See which service is offered at your favorite visiting place, and go for it.
URLs mentioned in this article:
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler and digital photographer for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes visitors to his website at www.mondodyne.com.