An Overview of How WiFi Hotspots Work

by Aeyne Schriber on February 13, 2011 in Wi-Fi Hotspots

Updated: July 9, 2014

Wi-Fi hotspots are a popular way to access broadband Internet from almost any device equipped with wireless capability, including smartphones, laptops, hybrid devices, and tablet PCs.

Wi-Fi hotspots are growing in popularity as more portable devices are hitting the market and more consumers and business people are becoming increasingly mobile. Wi-Fi hotspots can be both public and private and, although the capability to access the Internet from virtually anywhere is attractive, it can also be a security threat.

Only a few years ago, Wi-Fi hotpots were available in public locations such as transportation hubs, parks, coffee shops, libraries, and other public venues. Wi-Fi hotspots are now much more widespread and include portable hotspots, mobile hotspots, smartphone hotspots, shared hotspots, in-air hotspots, and more.

If you have a sound understanding of what Wi-Fi hotspots are, how they are made available, and how they work, it is easier to enjoy the convenience while keeping your personal information safe.

So exactly what is a Wi-Fi hotspot and how does it work to provide Internet access to business people, travelers, consumers, and the public in general?

A General Understanding of Wi-Fi Hotspot Technology

A Wi-Fi hotspot is very similar to the wireless router that you use in your home. It is a wireless access point that provides access to the Internet for devices that are connected to that specific network. The technology can consist of a portable device or a router that is setup by a public or private provider of wireless Internet access. The provider of the hotspot sets up the configuration using an Internet connection from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The hotspot communicates with devices equipped with wireless capability using a radio signal which transmits the Internet connection to devices that are connecting to the network. The end result is Internet access for multiple devices that are connected to the Wi-Fi hotspot.

If the Wi-Fi hotspot is in a public location such as a coffee shop, multiple people can connect to the Internet using this configuration. If the Wi-Fi hotspot is portable, this type of device is meant for a small group of people, a few users, or a single user.

Wi-Fi hotspots are also available through your wireless carrier such AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others. The service is delivered via towers that provide wireless signals to your mobile device. When you are within range of a tower, this is considered to be a Wi-Fi hotspot and automatically connects your mobile device to the Internet. Your wireless carrier can also supply you with a mobile hotspot device which is a different type of hotspot offered by your cellular carrier.

Let’s take a look at different Wi-Fi hotspots and how they work.

Various Types of Wi-Fi Hotspots

In the past, a Wi-Fi hotspot was considered to be a public venue equipped with a wireless router or a series of wireless routers to enable people to connect to the Internet. The coffee chain Starbucks was one of the first to implement this type of technology. Wireless access then gradually moved to airport hubs, hotels, parks, public libraries and universities.

In recent years, with more wireless equipped mobile devices being released on the market and the increased capability of Internet access by wireless carriers such as Verizon, T-Mobile and others, the definition of a Wi-Fi hotspot has shifted with the inception of new technologies for connectivity.

Public Wi-Fi Hotspot

It used to be that public Wi-Fi hotspots consisted of computers on a network in a café where you could sit down at a desktop PC, sip your coffee, and access the Internet. These were known as Internet Cafes or Cyber Cafés. Other people went to the local public library to access the Internet if there was no Internet connection at home.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots work a lot like your home wireless Internet connection. The owner of the public location is responsible for setting up access with a wireless router and establishing an account with an Internet Service Provider. Once wireless access to the Internet is established, the public venue can choose to offer Internet access for free or they can password protect the connection and charge a fee for access. When you turn on a portable device that is equipped with wireless capability, it automatically finds the hotspot and provides you with Internet connectivity.

Many businesses such as coffee shops use Wi-Fi hotspots to attract customers to the business. In most cases, wireless access is free where in other locations Internet access is available for a small fee. Wi-Fi hotspots are also available in airports and other public transportation venues, as well as public facilities, shopping centers, hotels, and many other locations.

However, consumers no longer have to rely on Wi-Fi hotspots being made available and can access a hotspot in public simply by turning on their mobile device. This provides you with high speed Internet access that is delivered from the nearest tower for your wireless carrier. This is known as 3G or 4G connectivity with some wireless carriers also offering LTE and WiMAX connectivity when you are traveling or in a public area. In this case, you are actually using your cellular data plan to access the Internet, as opposed to a free public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Wi-Fi hotspots that are available to the public for free are automatically detected by your mobile device. Although this may be convenient, it is not always safe. This is because many public Wi-Fi hotspots such as those in coffee shops, airports, hotels, and other public locations do not deploy encryption practices. Encryption technologies usually signal additional costs which some public locations prefer not to deal with so they leave the Wi-Fi network open to keep costs at a minimum.

This leaves you to watch out for your own privacy and protection while using a free public Wi-Fi network. The following video provides additional information on how free public Wi-Fi hotspots work along some useful suggestions on how to stay safe while using public Internet access.

With the inception of new technologies for connectivity, more service options are being provided by wireless carriers, coverage by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has increased, and a larger number of online services such as Cricket Wireless and others are being offered online. This presents many more options for accessing the Internet in public. The end result is an increased number of Wi-Fi hotspots and Internet accessibility that can be accessed in public using the device of your choice.

Smartphone Mobile Hotspots

In the event that there is no public Internet hotspot in the vicinity, you can use the Internet connectivity provided by your cellular wireless carrier to access the Internet. 3G or 4G Internet is accessible using your smartphone or a tablet device equipped with cellular service from your wireless carrier. If you can function using your smartphone or tablet PC and there is an available signal nearby from your wireless carrier, nothing else is necessary to connect to the Internet.

You can also establish your own personal mobile hotspot to connect another device to the Internet. In this type of configuration, only the devices you specify can connect to your personal Internet connection. For example, if you are carrying a laptop with you on business and there is no public Wi-Fi immediately available, you can use your smartphone as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to provide your laptop PC with Internet access.

Many of the recent smartphones on the market are equipped with mobile Wi-Fi hotspot capability which is very easy to setup and configure. The following video will provide you with an example of how a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot is established on an HTC smartphone.

Also, keep in mind that setting up your smartphone as a mobile hotspot can get expensive as it can eat into your data plan. For this reason, you may want to avoid doing a lot of video or music streaming while using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot since these are data intensive applications.

Mobile Hotspot Devices

Many of the wireless carriers offer mobile hotspot devices that you can include with your cellular contract. These are small portable devices that allow you to access the Internet from anywhere, as long as you have a signal from your wireless carrier.

A mobile hotspot device allows you to connect multiple devices to the mobile network of your choice. This includes laptops, hybrid devices, tablet PCs, and any other wireless-enabled devices.

Mobile hotspot devices are very portable and can fit into your pocket or purse. This allows you to carry the Internet with you anywhere you go.

If you are wondering about the availability of mobile hotspot devices, PC Magazine recently released a great article on the best mobile hotspot devices available by the major wireless carriers. The carriers include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, FreedomPop, and Xcom.

What about mobile hotspot security?

Mobile hotspots are actually more secure than accessing a free and open public wireless network. However, this does not mean you do not have to secure the data connection when using this type of device. You have heard the old adage, “Better to be safe than sorry.” This rule applies to using mobile hotspot devices. Here are a few tips:

  • Review the Encryption Settings: Most mobile hotspot devices support data encryption and are shipped with the default encryption settings enabled. However, the device should also support WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), WPA-2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2) with PSK which stands for Pre-Shared Key. The PSK means a password must be entered in order to access the mobile network.
  • Modify the SSID: SSID stands for Service Set Identifier and is the name of the network you see in a list of wireless networks when you are trying to connect a device. A unique SSID makes the network easily identifiable by you and can also be a deterrent for criminals that may try to access the network. For example, we know of someone whose SSID identifier is “Under NSA Surveillance.”
  • Create a Complex Password: We are all tempted to use a password that is easy to remember. However, a device or connection is only as secure as the password that protects it. For this reason, come up with a unique password that is difficult to guess when using a mobile hotspot device.
  • Think Before You Act: Avoid letting just anyone use the mobile hotspot because this means providing them with the password to access the Internet. Even if you know the person and allow them to use the network, keep track of what they are accessing to avoid malware attacks and to prevent them from using up your data.

More on Wi-Fi Hotspot Security

Security has been a concern ever since wireless connectivity started to become more popular. For the most part, you are taking a risk if you choose to do your online banking or enter passwords and other personal information while connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The chances are very good that Internet access is not secure which leaves you susceptible to anyone that can eavesdrop on your online activity.

If you want to protect your personal information, do not enter any personal information while you are connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, even if you are using your personal Wi-Fi hotspot. That said, to further protect your privacy while you access the Internet, use a proxy server that will hide your online activity from prying eyes.

Some of the proxy servers such as Free Proxy.net are available online at no cost. Many people use them to hide their indiscretions in the workplace however, they can serve a positive and productive purpose if you use them to stay safe while using a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

You can also protect your connection to the Internet by activating the firewall on your mobile device and configuring your device so it will allow you to approve the access points. Most firewall software can be configured to accept and block specific IP addresses for wireless networks. This is especially helpful if you are in a public location where there are multiple access points.

By configuring your device to approve specific access points, this will ensure that you are always accessing the right connection. It also prevents you from accessing a malicious network that is specifically designed to spy on your activities when using the Internet.

To prevent other devices from accessing yours, disable file and printer sharing. Keeping these features enabled creates the perfect vulnerability for a hacker to exploit to spy on your activity and steal your private data. If you want to be sure no one else can access your PC on a Wi-Fi hotspot, then store your personal data elsewhere or encrypt it for your own piece of mind.

Hopefully, this article will help to pave the way to understanding Wi-Fi hotspots and provide you with the street smarts you need while enjoying the convenience of Internet access from anywhere.

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