Wi-Fi on the Road

By Jim Geier

March 23, 2005

Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly popular for travelers. Learn what Jim Geier found while traveling by auto throughout much of the South Eastern U.S.

A while ago, I completed a nine day road trip while working for one of my clients, a 2,500 mile journey by car throughout much of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Since I generally fly while on business trips, this was a much different travel experience, but one that many sales and service people undertake on a regular basis. I'd been eager to take a road trip by car for quite a while, but this one was a bit more than I'd bargained for!

Soon after leaving home, my first experience with Wi-Fi was seeing hotel advertisements on billboards along the interstates touting Wi-Fi broadband Internet service. This prompted me to call ahead and make reservations at a Holiday Inn Express, which offers free Wi-Fi in most of their locations. In fact, the hotel clerk taking my reservation was very enthusiastic about their offering of Wi-Fi service. This left me with the realization that wireless LAN proliferation is really happening, and "Wi-Fi" is an industry brand name that non-technical people are beginning to understand.

Before my first hotel stay, I stopped at a Flying J truck stop for gas, and I learned through a poster insider the facility that they offered Wi-Fi service. That's a great application of Wi-Fi, which allows truckers to keep in touch with family and businesses while parking overnight at truck stops. It's also good for people like me who are traveling by auto and stopping for a quick pit stop.

Since I was going to be on the road for the next week or so, I paid the fee for a monthly Flying J service plan so that I could keep up with e-mails when on the interstate highways and in between hotel stops. That actually worked out pretty well. After pulling into the auto side of the truck stop, I could boot my laptop from inside the car and hit the Internet.

I downloaded a map of the Flying J truck stops and planned my stops accordingly. Unfortunately this Wi-Fi service was not available at any of the hotels where I was staying. Luckily, Wi-Fi Internet access at the hotels was free; otherwise, I would have been paying for two service plans at the same time.

Inter-service roaming is a problem with public Wi-Fi, similar as it used to be with cell phones a decade ago. At least with cell phones, we only had a few service providers, and each of them provided coverage just about everywhere. With public Wi-Fi, there are hundreds of service providers, and a different one is generally your only choice as you move to a new hotel, airport, or convention center. The issue is that no inter-service roaming standards currently exist, and there's nothing coming about in the foreseeable future.

During my trip, I quickly found that most of the Holiday Inn Express hotels offer free Wi-Fi Internet service in their hotel rooms. So, that's pretty much where I stayed. Other hotels, such as Comfort Inn, also offer free Wi-Fi service as well. Access to the network was easy. In most cases, I only needed to raise my browser and accept the terms and conditions. A couple of the locations also required me to enter my room number and a password that the hotel clerk gave me when checking into the hotel.

Without the user name and password requirements, some people ("Wi-Fi squatters") knowing that the hotel offers free service could just pull into the parking lot and access the Internet for free without paying for a hotel room. The hotels that didn't require user names and passwords would at least initially redirect you to a screen advertising the hotel and prompting you to make reservations at the associated hotel chain.

Wi-Fi coverage in the hotels varied. Some only had two access points, but I generally got lucky and had a room right next to an access point. Users in other rooms in parts of the hotel would likely suffer due to poor signal strength.

Just for fun, I walked around most of the hotels while running AirMagnet software, and I found SNR values as low as 10dB in some areas. That's not good enough to maintain association with an access point. In addition, most of the hotels didn't cover stairwells and elevators very well, which would result in dropped voice-over-WLAN calls if you're using that sort of service. Other hotels of the same size had a dozen or more access points, with extremely good coverage throughout all areas of the hotel.

Also, I found that only one of the hotels offering Wi-Fi service had Wi-Fi cards available at the front desk. As a result, users need to come equipped with Wi-Fi.

After using public Wi-Fi service so often on this trip, I reminded myself of the potential security issues. All data sent over a public Wi-Fi network is natively sent in the clear (not encrypted). My POP3 e-mail account includes encryption, but many e-mail services don't offer any protection. So, you should check on this before using Wi-Fi hotspots.

If you're using credit cards over the Internet, then be certain that the applicable online store you're purchasing from uses secure socket layer (SSL) protocols to encrypt transactions. Otherwise, your credit card numbers may fall into the hands of someone sniffing the network. Virtual private network (VPN) client software is a must for corporate users, which encrypts data on an end-to-end basis between the user device and the corporate server.

Furthermore, personal firewalls are very important to preclude a hacker from accessing the data on your user device. Once associated with a public Wi-Fi access point, your user device is another node on the network along others belonging to hackers. This means that the hacker can exploit this connection and possibly access your device.

All-in-all, my Wi-Fi experience while traveling on this particular road trip by auto was very good. Without any pre-planning, it wasn't difficult while underway to find Wi-Fi service available along interstates and at hotels. The future looks even better since many of the larger metro areas, such as Philadelphia and Atlanta, are deploying city-wide Wi-Fi networks to make Wi-Fi much more available to travelers.

Jim Geier is the founder and principal consultant of Wireless-Nets, Ltd., a consulting firm focusing on the implementation of wireless mobile solutions and training. He is the author of the books, Wireless LANs (Sams) and Wireless Networks - First Step (Cisco Press).



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