Hotspots—what are they, where are they, and how can you connect to them while protecting your privacy and security?
If you’ve ever tried to answer an email or surf the Internet from your mobile device in public—or even at the office or your house—chances are you connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Not only is this connection highly convenient, you also didn’t have to use your smartphone’s data. Not surprisingly, hotspots are becoming an essential part of public infrastructure—and our Internet experience.
Millions of people every day connect to public hotspots for their data needs. By some estimates, there are almost 200 million hotspots around the world, and there will be one hotspot for every 20 people on earth by 2018. Thanks to our modern always-on digital lifestyle, people expect to be constantly connected, and public Wi-Fi access points are expanding to a global network of hotspots to meet those needs.
Before we dive in to how to connect to a hotspot and related security issues, let’s define what we mean. While some people use the terms “hotspot” and “mobile hotspot” interchangeably, they have distinct meanings.
- Hotspot: A hotspot is a physical location where people can access the Internet, typically using Wi-Fi, via a wireless local area network (WLAN) with a router connected to an Internet service provider. Most people refer to these locations as “Wi-Fi hotspots” or “Wi-Fi connections.” Simply put, hotspots are the physical places where users can wirelessly connect their mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, to the Internet.
A hotspot can be in a private location or a public one, such as in a coffee shop, a hotel, an airport, or even an airplane. While many public hotspots offer free wireless access on an open network, others require payment. Later in the article you’ll learn how to connect a mobile device to a Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Mobile hotspot: A mobile hotspot (sometimes called a portable hotspot) is a hotspot that’s just that—mobile! While a “regular” Wi-Fi hotspot is tied to a physical location, you can create a mobile hotspot by using your smartphone’s data connection to connect your laptop to the Internet. This process is called “tethering.” More on this process later.
You should also know these terms when you’re talking about Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Access point (wireless access point): A wireless access point (WAP) is a networking device that allows a Wi-Fi compliant device to connect to a wired network. The WAP can either be physically connected to a router or be integrated into the router itself. A WAP is not a hotspot, which is the physical location where Wi-Fi access to a WLAN is available.
- Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is the technology that allows your smartphone or computer to access the Internet through a wireless connection. It uses radio signals to send and receive data between your enabled device and the WAP.
- SSID: A service set identifier (more commonly known as an SSID) is the unique name of a wireless network. You’ll need to know the name of the wireless network to connect to it. Your computer or smartphone can search for available wireless networks; often people name their network for easy identification—anything from “Bob’s phone” to “hotel guests” to “Get off my LAN.”
Now that you understand some of the terms associated with hotspots, let’s learn how to connect to them.
How to Connect to a Wi-Fi Hotspot
You probably connect your smartphone or laptop to the Internet via several Wi-Fi hotspots throughout your day, whether you’re at your office, in your home, or at public locations like coffee shops and airports. Using hotspots is an easy way to keep connected to your busy life.
Connecting to a wireless hotspot is a simple process. Let’s use your smartphone as an example. You want to answer an email at the airport while you’re waiting for your flight, and you don’t want to use your data. You can set your smartphone to notify you when it’s in range of a wireless network, or you can find wireless networks through your phone’s settings. The steps you need to follow to connect to the Wi-Fi hotspot will depend on the device—Android*, iPhone*, or another brand—but here is an overview.
- Click the wireless icon on your device to see the names of nearby wireless networks. Select a wireless network; in some cases, you might also have to click “Connect.”
- Enter the security key or the password. Most wireless networks are secured and require a password to accept a connection. Some networks are unsecured or open and do not require a password; you should take care when accessing them as they could introduce a security risk.
- Select the network type (home, work, or public, if you are on a Windows* device). Choosing the network type will establish a security level appropriate for your location. If you select “home” or “work,” your device will be discoverable to other devices. Be sure to select “public” if you are in a public location like a coffee shop, hotel, restaurant, airport, and other similar locations.
Voilà! You’ll be online in a flash.
Depending on where you are and the types of hotspots near you, you may be on either an open, unsecured wireless network or a paid/commercial wireless network. You may be asked to sign up for an account or use a paid service like Boingo* or iPass*, which offer various Wi-Fi access plans depending on how much time you plan use the Internet.
Let’s say, though, that you can’t find a Wi-Fi hotspot nearby. Read on to learn how you can use your smartphone as a portable hotspot.
Using Your Smartphone as a Mobile Hotspot
If you’re in a location that doesn’t have a hotspot and you want to connect your laptop to the Internet, you can use your phone as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot through a process called “tethering.” This allows your laptop to access the Internet and share your smartphone’s data connection.
While the set-up steps vary depending on your smartphone and your Internet service provider, you can usually find the instructions in your phone’s Settings or Manage Connections menu. For security, you’ll want to make sure that you use a Wi-Fi password so that nearby Internet users can’t access your phone or laptop. Also, be aware that tethering your laptop to your phone will use your phone’s data allowance; so be sure to keep an eye on your usage to avoid any overage fees.
Now that you’re connected, that’s it, right? Well, not exactly. You should be aware that while using Wi-Fi hotspots is a convenient way to stay connected with work, family, and friends. Hotspot connectivity also presents some security risks.
One of the risks of being connected to the Internet is that the very technologies that help us keep up with our work and personal lives can be vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves.
When looking for a public Wi-Fi hotspot, be sure to connect your smartphone or laptop only to reputable providers—for example, the hotel’s or coffee shop’s wireless network. Be wary about connecting to hotspots that have misspellings such as Bongo instead of Boingo, as hackers sometimes use these seemingly innocent names to lure busy users who aren’t paying close attention.
It’s also possible for hackers to distribute malware (software that can damage or disable your computer) through an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, especially if you are using a file-sharing program over the same network.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
If you have security concerns about using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you could consider creating a virtual private network (VPN), which allows you to use to the Internet through an encrypted connection. While this can deter hackers because your data is encrypted, be aware that it will slow down your Internet access because of the processing power required to encrypt and decrypt your transmitted data.
Find a VPN Solution that Works
If you’re interested in using a VPN to safeguard yourself online:
- Invest in a monthly service. This is one of the most commonly used solutions. Make sure to do your research before you buy.
- Consider purchasing a VPN-enabled router. There are several models on the market that make setting up your own VPN easy.
With more than 9 billion Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices expected to be in use by the end of the year, the importance of hotspots and Wi-Fi in our lives really can’t be overstated.