Fixes for Wi-Fi Hotspot Annoyances

Wednesday Jun 17th 2009 by Eric Geier
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A guide to securing your connection, accessing remote files, sharing connections and more.

If you're a frequent traveler you probably can't do without Wi-Fi hotspots. Though we have smart phones and blackberries, a good Wi-Fi connection lets us browse and communicate from the laptop.

However, wireless networking standards and gear wasn't specifically created with public applications in mind. Thus, as you may know too well, there are many annoyances that come along with using Wi-Fi hotspots.

Here are five of the hotspot annoyances and tips on how to get around them:

#1 Securing the connection

Most hotspots don't offer encrypted connections, so security should be one of your main concerns when using Wi-Fi hotspots.

Anyone within range of the signals can see the raw traffic of your connection. This isn't a big deal if you're just browsing the Web. Connections to encrypted sites (such as banking and other sensitive accounts) using SSL/HTTPS are completely secure.

However, traffic from other unsecured services, such as email, instant messaging, and FTP, can be captured. A tutorial on what Wi-Fi eavesdroppers see shows examples of these vulnerabilities. Plus, some hotspots don't block user-to-user communication, so so any folders you are sharing may be compromised. These usually aren't concerns when you're on private networks that use WPA or WPA2 encryption, and you trust the other network users.

To solve this annoyance, you can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection to encrypt and scramble your traffic from local Wi-Fi eavesdroppers. If your employer offers VPN access, you may be able to use it. Otherwise you can use the free Web-based SSL VPN service from AnchorFree, or paid options from WiTopia or HotSpotVPN. Then to prevent others from connecting to your laptop, disable any shared folders and use Windows Firewall. If using Windows Vista, specify the connection as public when prompted after connecting. This will automatically disable sharing and configure other settings as needed.

#2 Finding the free spots

Another annoyance you've probably had is trying to find a hotspot--or one that's free. If you're a frequent traveler and/or hotspot user you might find purchasing hotspot service, such as from Boingo or T-Mobile, is feasible. However for many casual users, finding and using the free spots will suffice. But you should always be on the look out for incentive offers from phone and Internet companies that offer free hotspot access.

If you know exactly where you're heading before you leave, you can search for hotspots on Wi-FiFreeSpot. It's a good idea to review the list of national or regional companies that offer Wi-Fi. That way even if you haven't searched for spots in a specific area, you might be able to find one of the stores that you know offers the service.

When traveling by car, keep in mind most hotels have Wi-Fi. So if you need a connection you can probably pull off at any exit, park next to a hotel, and access the hotspot if it doesn't require a password or customer login.

#3 Accessing remote files

There probably has been times where you wished you could access your files or computer when working remotely. For example, you forgot to take some documents with you or you didn't know you needed them when you left. However, if you take some time to set up remote access, this situation doesn't have to ruin your day.

If your work has a VPN set up, accessing your work files probably isn't a problem. However, if not, there are several options you can look into.

The VPN services mentioned in this article’s first section don't include remote access capabilities. They are strictly intended to secure the wireless traffic from hotspot eavesdroppers, thus the end-point or VPN server is offered by the provider. To use a VPN for both encryption and remote access capabilities, you need to set up your own, so the end-point is your network.

If the PC you want to remotely access is loaded with Windows XP Professional or Windows Vista Business or Ultimate, you can actually create your own VPN for free using Microsoft servers and clients. You may also consider buying a router with that set-up that has a VPN server in it.

You can also find third-party applications and services, such as the free GBridge software.

Next Page: Getting past email blocks, sharing connections

#4 Getting past the email block

Some Wi-Fi hotspots block the traffic on port 25 for SMTP, which is used to send email from clients like Microsoft Outlook. Additionally, some ISPs require customers to send email from accounts they provide at only their Internet connections. These two measures might help cut down on SPAM messages, but can be a real headache when you go to check or send your email from public networks.

You should try to use Web-based email when away, so you won't have to deal with any of these issues; plus it can be secure. Your email provider may already offer this in addition to the POP3/IMAP access. If not, you still have options. If you are using email addresses provided by your own Web site, consider using a utility like JMailbox to host the service yourself. If the Internet or email provider doesn't give you Web access, try a SMTP relay or other service, such as Mail2Web.

#5 Sharing a wired connection

At hotels you might find yourself using a wired connection instead of Wi-Fi. If you're traveling with others, you'll probably all be fighting over the connection in no time. However, you can wirelessly share a wired connection.

The person connected to the Internet via an Ethernet cable can create an ad-hoc wireless network. Using the Internet connection sharing (ICS) feature of Windows, he or she can share their Web access with others that connect to the computer-to-computer network.

Another way around this issue is to bring along a wireless router. There are small travel routers you can purchase; or you can buy a regular router, as most are relatively small. However, if you have a router at home, and it isn't needed while you're gone, you can just take that. It would also already be set up with encryption (or it should be) and ready to go, just like at home.

ALSO SEE: What Wi-Fi Eavesdroppers See on Unsecured Networks

AND: Wi-Fi Advice: Wi-Fi Boosters, Hotel Wi-Fi

Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).

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