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Over The Network

About Wireless Networking (WiFi)

All you need to know about WiFi by Tom Jones

In a message thread in the RV Forum I asked several questions regarding wireless networking. Several others posed related/additional questions. The following is a synopsis of the responses provided by some knowledgeable WiFi'ers. A few items have also been added or updated.

What hardware do I need?

A PCMCIA wireless LAN card, also known as a WiFi card, meeting the wireless standard number 802.11g card that supports both 128 bit WEP and WPA encryption. Manufacturers of WiFi cards include Agere, Avaya, D-Link, Linksys, Lucent, and Netgear.

Linksys makes a USB WiFi adapter that allows the user to move it around to find a good signal without having to move the computer around.

Some newer laptops are "wi-fi enabled" (i.e. the antenna and card are built into the computer), and no additional hardware is required).

How do I find hot spots? Is there some directory, or should I use some kind of "sniffer" software to find them? If I wander around with my WiFi card plugged in, do the hot spots find me?

Network sniffer software such as Network Stumbler or Boingo will locate and display the presence of wireless networks.

If you have Windows XP, and have configured Windows to configure your wireless network settings, you merely have to right click on the icon in the system tray and select "View Available Wireless Networks". It will show you all of the visible networks in range.

Web sites that list hot spots and their locations include:


Another source of WiFi hot spots is Yahoo Maps; While viewing a map of e.g. a city, click on Travel And Transportation on the right of the screen, then select WiFi Hot Spots. An icon appears at each hot spot location and, if you put the cursor over an icon, it gives you the exact location.

Who typically operates the hot spots? Is there a charge for accessing a hot spot, and how do you sign up and pay?

Free hotspots are made available from a wide range of providers such as an individual residence, RV parks, co-ops, governmental communities, coffee shops, and literally thousands of business and other enterprise networks who have failed to secure their networks. Some RVers have a Motosat internet dish mounted on the roof of their RV and allow others free access to their connection.

The charge variety has many options from paying a daily rate to joining a network and paying a monthly or yearly fee for access. These systems are located in coffee shops, airports, RV parks, etc. These systems do use encryption /passwords or other methods of controlling access to their systems. Firewall software like Zone Alarm is your only real defence.

An increasing number of RV parks are providing WiFi access, but it's not clear at this time if, long term, this will be a free service or if park owners will see it as a revenue generator.

Payment is made by several means. One brings you online to permit the sign up via credit card for either a 24 hour period or a monthly fee, then activates you to get full service. In another variation, one pays at RV park office and is given codes for a set time alottment.

What are the security implications of accessing a hot spot? Is it easy for someone to either intercept (read) my transmissions and is it easy to hack into my machine? (I use Norton Internet Security).

WEP isn't particularly secure, and will be replaced by WPA.

128 bit encryption

Many people who have bought new laptops which are Wi-Fi enabled (the antenna and card are built into equipment) have no knowledge or understanding that they are wide open to the world of Internet each time they turn on their machines.

Be sure to use SSL connections whereever you can (https:// sites). This will encrypt your connection from end to end.

What's the range of a hot spot (how close do I need to be)? e.g. if a hotel or a Starbucks has a hot spot, do I need to be physically in their lobby/coffee shop?

The useful range of WiFi is dependent on walls, etc. as well as the particular adapter you're using. The typical range of a PC Card or built-in WiFi adapter is perhaps 300 ft. in the open, much less if there are intervening walls. NetStumbler will give you a signal strength reading for every network within range. Also, the XP wireless connection status will give you similar, but less detailed, information. With directional antennas, WiFi can be extended over long distances, as you have stated. However, the typical range of a PC Card or built-in WiFi adapter is perhaps 300 ft. in the open, much less if there are intervening walls.

Where can I get more information on WiFi?

Wi Fi Planet is a good site for keeping up with whats happening in WiFi. Also, PC Magazine has several WiFi articles in their archives (go to www.pcmag.com and search on WiFi).