Consider the limited possibilities inherent in an airport layover: You could kill time browsing the newsstand or watching passengers wait in line for their boarding passes. Or you could put that time to productive use by logging on with your notebook to answer email and do online research.
A notebook, a wireless networking card, and just a bit of preparation can turn delays at the airport, a trip to the coffee shop, and other downtime into productive time.
To enjoy the benefits of wireless Internet access, you'll need a notebook with a Wi-Fi card. Airports and other public locations almost always use one of two versions of Wi-Fi, known as 802.11b and 802.11g. The vast majority of Wi-Fi cards support one or both of those protocols. If you already have a Wi-Fi card, it will almost certainly do the job.
Your Wi-Fi card will include software for connecting to wireless networks. Since software varies from one product to another, become familiar with yours before you find yourself in a strange city yearning for Internet access.
In order to use wireless Internet access, you'll need to be in a location with a nearby access point. Thousands of public places around the country (and indeed, the world) have them: Knowing where they are before you leave can make finding access on the go a whole lot easier. Web sites such as WiFinder (www.wifinder.com) and Wi-Fi Free Spot (www.wififreespot.com) will point you to them.
Many access points are free and open to the public (although you might want to buy a cup of coffee from the business that's providing access). Other public Wi-Fi services require that you subscribe. Boingo (www.boingo.com), Wayport (www.wayport.com), and other companies provide access in hotels, airports, and meeting facilities. They typically charge $7 to $8 for one-day access from an airport, or you can purchase a monthly subscription fee for unlimited use from any access point in that company's network. If you find yourself stranded at an airport for a few hours, you can sign up on the spot.
Sometimes wireless access points aren't so obvious, or you won't have a chance to research locations before you go. So it's handy to load your notebook with specialized software to help you find wireless networks wherever you go. Network Stumbler (www.netstumbler.com) is a program that will alert you when you're in range of a wireless network. But beware: Not every access point that Network Stumbler finds is intentionally open to the public. Some may be improperly secured private networks. (On one trip, Network Stumbler led us directly to the curb in front of a stranger's house.)
When you are using a wireless Internet connection, you are on an untrusted LAN (local-area network) where, potentially, anyone else can access the files on your notebook. Guard against this possibility by turning off Windows file sharing. In addition, it's a good idea to use firewall software on your notebook: This will guard against nearby folks scanning your PC's network ports for vulnerabilities.
Windows XP has a built-in firewall. To activate it, open the Control Panel, click Network and Internet Connections, then click Network Connections. Click the icon that represents your wireless Internet connection, and click Change Settings Of This Connection. Click the Advanced tab, then select the Protect My Computer And Network By Limiting Or Preventing Access To This Computer From The Internet checkbox. If you use Windows 98/Me, download ZoneAlarm (www.zonealarm.com)-there's a free version that provides sufficient protection from wireless invaders.
Your privacy should be a special concern when using a wireless network. Depending on the type of security on the network, it is possible that email, Web forms, and other data that you send and receive can be intercepted by anyone within radio range. WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol), available on many networks, offers protection against casual snoops but is easily defeated. WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) provides better security but is not yet as widely supported.
Waiting for your flight will never be the same. As long as you have a notebook, the hours you used to spend idly watching strangers argue with customer service representatives can be used instead to tame your overflowing email box, do some online research, or just read your favorite blogs. It's the only way to fly.
Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.