Travel, business, and government leaders and pundits have been buzzing about public Wi-Fi for years; projects to wire every corner of major airports have come one after another, upstaged only by projects to wire entire cities. A price and policy war wages among hotel chains as many low and mid-priced chains offer free Internet access while some upscale chains, red-faced but holding tight, still charge as much as $14.95 a day for Internet in your room and hotel lobbies.
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But just because there is a Wi-Fi signal doesn't mean it will work very well.
For example, on a recent international trip I fired up my laptop in an airport lounge, free Wi-Fi coupon in hand. My wireless card software showed the signal to be very good — nearly 100 percent.
Why, then, couldn't I get any e-mail to download? Why did my browser just hang, hang, hang?
A quick look around the room held the answer. The room had one or two Wi-Fi access points, and dozens of users competing for those points. The signal was great — it was also maxxed out.
The situation can get much worse when your signal is weaker, as it often is in hotel rooms. Like cell phones, wireless connections rely on a line-of-sight connection to the access point. Again, you know from your home wireless network that you should place the router antenna up high and clear of clutter, and you get a better signal on the remote computer if you are in direct line with the output. Move a few feet over so there is a wall between you and the source, and you still get signal, but it often suffers dramatically.
In your hotel, your proximity to the hotel's base station or booster, which may be out in the hall or even in the lobby, dictates the strength of signal. Then there is the fact that the entire airport, hotel or location also has to connect up and out to the Internet; logjams can occur at every node along the chain, and you're staring at an hourglass.
So let's say it's evening, just after dinner, and everyone in the hotel is checking their e-mail. The nearest antenna is maxxed out, the network connection is burping and choking — and you're sitting at a cramped hotel work desk, fuming.
Here are tips for beating the crowds and getting better Wi-Fi.
Find a better Wi-Fi spot
JiWire.comhas become the definitive guide to hotspots worldwide. Check the list before you travel, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration in staking out your access points and expenses. One JiWire.com employee traveled through a half-dozen airports on a cross-country trip and enjoyed high-quality free Internet access the whole way.
Additionally, many travelers staying in a hotel without access (and sometimes with fee access) will head to the lobby of a neighboring hotel to jack in.
Post yourself as near the signal as possible
Nearly all newer laptops have a signal sniffer, and most wireless cards come with software that does the same thing. Computer stores sell signal finders that specifically help you find wireless signals.
You can do a search dog routine and use your wireless antenna software to sniff out the source, and post up when you get the strongest signal. As most wireless routers are hidden behind ceilings or wall panels, or otherwise out of view, this may be your best bet. "The beauty of Wi-Fi is that it works through walls and doors, so the access point is probably in a utility or other secure area," says David Blumenfeld, VP of marketing at hotspot locator JiWire.com. "Once you have a signal, the best thing to do is walk around and try to improve it."
In a hotel, this may mean to get closer to the door of your room. Most hotels have a single base station, and then place repeaters on each floor, sometimes on every other floor, and use the hallways as "wave guides" to direct signal to your room.
Note that many hotel wireless systems have been set up somewhat willy-nilly; one connectivity expert I know has seen systems that he says "can barely support a home network, let alone a hotel full of business travelers zooming PowerPoint presentations around the Net." One in particular, a single Linksys home router in a janitorial closet on every other floor, performed particularly poorly. If you can position yourself to pick off a bit more of the signal, you may do much better.
And just because the hotel Web site says "Free Wireless Internet" doesn't mean you'll be working from your king bed. Wireless may be available only in the lobby, the restaurant or other select parts of the hotel.
Go to an empty gate
In airports where Wi-Fi is "ubiquitous," there will be numerous antennae posted throughout the airport. If you sit at your packed gate, you are competing with everyone else on your flight for the single proximate antenna. Moving to an empty gate or waiting area will give you better data speeds with the same signal strength. When you move, a glance at your signal gauge will let you know whether you have sacrificed signal for solitude.
Note that not all gates have wireless access; search for your airport on JiWire.com to get the which and where of airport hotspots.
Invest in some Wi-Fi gadgets
Directional and long-range Wi-Fi antenna cards can significantly increase the strength of your signal. One note: reception on certain Apple wireless cards can underperform many PC cards. If you are having trouble with your Apple reception, long-range cards may help you considerably.
Some travelers prefer not to be trapped at the desk in their hotel rooms, especially at the end of the business day. Additionally, multiple occupants of the same hotel room may want to access the Internet at the same time. You can achieve either by investing in a portable wireless router. Apple offers a Cellular Travel Router, and Linksys has the Wireless-G Travel Router.Most reputable wireless router retailers offer a travel router of some stripe.
Find a jack
Anyone who has a typical home wireless setup knows that the computer that is jacked directly into the modem has the best signal. When you plug into a jack in an airport lounge full of folks competing for Wi-Fi, your one becomes equal to their many. That is, your computer plugged into the jack has as clear access to the larger network as does the one antenna being used by 40 people. Your data speed will soar.
You can often find jacks in your hotel room, as well as at airports — I have found jacks both in airline lounges as well as in public waiting areas in major airports. When in doubt, jack in!
The rule of thumb you can take away from the scenarios laid out above: Strong signals combined with small crowds make for better Wi-Fi — the law of supply and demand trumps all once again.