WiFi or Wireless Internet Connection
-What It Is-
WiFi ("why-fie" or "wee-fee" in France) is short for "wireless fidelity." Hot Spots and Air Ports are other names we have heard for connecting to the internet via a wireless network overseas. It's not brand new but it's new enough that when inquiring in places offering WiFi in Europe we are often greeted with blank stares, even among the college-aged crowd. WiFi capability is the newest piece in Bill's arsenal for connecting our laptop to the internet while abroad.
And it is truly wireless. Bill can sit down in a shop where WiFi is available, boot up the laptop, and in a few minutes be on the internet without connecting any cables. If the table he is sitting at becomes too noisy, he can move to another area in the room or building without a blip in the connection.
Newer laptops can be purchased with the WiFi hardware built-in. If you are hauling around wonderful but obsolete technology like us, you can slip a purchased card into your laptop's PC card slot (PCMCIA) each time you connect. Hardware for connecting through a USB port is also available. There are 2 levels of cards to choose from: 802.11b cards transmitting data at about 10 Mbps (megabits per second) and 802.11b/g cards transmitting data at up to 54 Mbps. The faster "b/g" cards are backwards-compatible with networks designed for the slower "b" cards. The faster "b/g" cards are of course more expensive. We bought the faster card not knowing how often the systems we hooked into would support it, but it was hard to pass up more speed as we are always paying by the minute any way we connect, including with WiFi.
-Finding Service Providers-
WiFi is catching on in Europe, as it is in the States. Coffee shops in the larger cities are common places to find WiFi service. Starbucks coffee shops, both in the US and in Europe, often have T-Mobile Hot Spots and display an identifying sticker on their door. The Travel Inn hotel chain in Britain is installing WiFi in all of its locations even though few of their rooms have telephones. Travel Inn will even loan you the WiFi device to insert into your laptop while using their service. The Ibis Hotels headquartered in France with locations in many European countries are beginning to make WiFi available in their rooms too. And WiFi apparently even shows up in the first class cars on some train lines and in some airports overseas.
Actually tracking down WiFi service is difficult. Tourist info offices rarely know of services in their town but searching on the internet for shops can be fruitful. So far, we've done best by just wandering around a city's shopping district with our laptop in hand and looking for hot spot signage in café windows. That's not a very efficient approach, but it seems to be the current state of the art for travelers.
-The Cost of Using WiFi-
The price of WiFi is all over the map, ranging from really free and sort of free to prohibitively expensive. As of yet, we haven't found a truly free WiFi connection overseas. Almost all of the freebies are free for the price of a cup of coffee in a café, which is usually $2-3 for however long you can nurse a cup along. The prices in hotels varies wildly. An Ibis Hotel in Koblenz, Germany charged $40 for a 24 hour long access interval, whereas the Ibis we visited in Barcelona a couple days later was charging $16 for 24 hours. In Barcelona's Ibis, an hour option was also available for just under $7. T-Mobile in the States charges about $40 a month to use their service and has different pricing schemes in Europe. Portland and some other cities have truly free WiFi hotspots scattered around. There is a move afoot to blanket the city core of Portland with free service and that's already a reality at the international airport.
Bill located one website, www.wifi411.org, that lists free and commercial WiFi sites by city. We tried using its listings for Edinburgh, Scotland with minimal success. The couple of places for which we had enough information to locate the shops were free for the price of a beverage and at one of the sites, their WiFi service was up and down too often for it to be useful. Bill finally restored to skipping the WiFi connection altogether and using a hardwire connection at an internet shop. As was true in Edinburgh, connecting in cities is generally easy as there are a range of options available and Bill uses whatever is convenient or cheap. While in Britain, we finally settled on seeking out the Travel Inn's when we wanted to connect and paid for a minimum of 2 hours on their somewhat expensive but very reliable systems.
For us, the disadvantage of WiFi is the pricing structure, as the minimum prices are usually for 2 to 24 hours of continuous use. We are now totally habituated to working off-line because we always pay for internet use by the minute (though it may be a minimum charge for a half hour.) Our routine is to go on line, download our emails and upload our outgoing email and perhaps a webpage update. Those activities usually take 10-15 minutes with a reasonably good connection. Then we work off line over the course of a few hours or a couple of days, taking turns keying in replies to our emails. Once we've finished writing our new emails, Bill goes back on line for a few minutes to send out and download any new mail. So, our connection needs are for less than 30 minutes over a day or 2, ideally once or twice a week.
We long for WiFi plans that are like telephone cards in which your prepaid fee for a fixed amount of time can be used over the course of several months. But so far most of the WiFi programs have had $5-10 minimum charges, with the meter running uninterruptedly as soon as you log-on.
-Ease of Use-
When it works, WiFi is great, and it works more often than the other ways Bill tries to connect abroad. Bill slips the WiFi card into the laptop and boots up the computer. He then launches our internet browser. If the WiFi system is active as it is supposed to be, it will display a screen inviting him to log-in to their system with the help of his credit card number to 'feed the meter.' It takes a couple of minutes to complete the formalities, then it's just using the internet as usual.
-For the Curious-
If you'd like to poke around online and see what's available, here are several providers we've encountered:
www.swisscom-eurospot.com used at the Travel Inn's in Britain
www.tmobile.com used at Starbuck's Coffee Shops in the US
www.readytosurf.com used at Virgin Megastore coffee shops in the UK
We began using WiFi in 2004 and things are changing quickly and WiFi is of course becoming more available. In sleepy Swiss villages; a city park in Bolzano, Italy; a little used Greek ferry terminal; a moderately priced Turkish hotel--you just don't know where it is going to turn up. We've changed our strategy accordingly. We no longer bother asking as most people don't know if it is around. Instead, we try picking up a signal.
Most every night we boot up our laptop and hang it out the window of our hotel room and scan for a hotspot. If we are a little more motivated, we'll walk the halls and check where ever the concrete obstructions aren't too numerous. Hotel balconies and guest-accessible rooftops are all fair game for hot spot sleuthing. Sometimes we pick-up what looks to be a private, but unsecured site and we'll quickly up and down load our emails. At other times we've picked-up a pay-by-the-hour site which we use if the rates are low enough. And sometimes we'll detect a free, public site.
Once or twice when I've been really motivated by lack of internet access, I've even walked the streets with the laptop, scanning for a signal. Every couple of blocks I'll stop in a discreet location with lighting that allows seeing the laptop screen and check again. Of course, we aren't going to stand on a street corner and surf but our primary need is sending and receiving emails as we now always work with them offline.
Our success in finding a usable signal is wildly unpredictable but we are often finding WiFi once a week in our travels by routinely checking for it.
That's the extent of our knowledge and experience as new WiFi users. If you know something about it that we don't, we'd love to hear from you.