Hot stuff

Did you want fries with that email? McDonald's has joined a number of establishments that are setting up what are known as "hot spots."

Paul Feuerstein, DMD

Did you want fries with that email? McDonald's has joined a number of establishments that are setting up what are known as "hot spots." A look at mcdwireless.com will show you that a few WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) have signed on to work with the fast food chain. Once again, a new craze comes along with new acronyms and verbiage. Almost all new laptops now come equipped with wireless network cards. Many of the new PDAs also have wireless capabilities, allowing you to download email or Web sites on your Palm or Windows mobile device. Since we are now a society where email access is a critical part of work and play, more places are making access easier.

Anyone who has tried to access the Internet in a hotel or motel has been faced with plugging a phone cord into the side of the phone, calling up a toll-free number, and getting a whopping 28K connection. To add insult, some hotels charge for the call. This evolved to some hotels having a network wire and connection to the hotel's LAN in each room. Setup requires a disk or some user intervention and a daily fee of about $10. In the past year, more hotels have changed to wireless networks, allowing anyone with the proper devices to just turn it on and join in. As soon as the computer or device locates the network, a browser opens up, welcoming you to the hotel wireless system. (Note: Windows XP has made this essentially automatic.) If you have an existing account with the hotel's WISP, you just have to log in. If not, then the hotel asks for a credit card number and charges a 12- or 24-hour fee and instantly connects you with the system. So how does this all work? The hotel has set up a wireless network that acts as a cloud of access throughout the hotel. What this means is that you would more than likely have access in many areas throughout the hotel - the lobby, lounges, and perhaps in the adjacent parking lot. If this is true, the parking lot is now called a "hot spot." Anyone with a wireless device can pull into the lot and have instant access to the Internet. Of course, there is no free lunch — the parked user still has to log into the WISP with the password or credit card. This development has led to unscrupulous people searching around homes and office buildings who are trying to find hot spots that are less secure, looking for free access. (Some cellular phones have Internet access, but these are billed at call connection fees at dialup speed as compared to the WiFi at DSL speeds.)

For those less adventurous, many retail operations and even airports are setting up wireless networks for their customers — some free with a minimum purchase, others with a paid WISP connection. By going to hotspotlist.com, wififreespot.com and several other sites, you can find a list of local establishments that offer wireless access. It is difficult to predict which carrier you might run into. To point out the current confusion, according to a well-known WISP, boingo.com, "HSOs (Hot Spot Operators) include Wayport, STSN, Surf and Sip, StayOnline, to name just a few. In the last year, major wireless carriers have thrown their hat in the ring, including T-Mobile (which is building hot spots in Starbucks cafes, Borders book stores, Kinko's stores, and airline clubs), AT&T Wireless, British Telecom, Swisscom, Telecom Italia, and Sprint PCS. Also note that Boeing just signed a deal with a satellite provider for in-flight access on overseas flights. This is all fine, but keep in mind that your information is sailing around and might be captured by others. The WiFi Alliance warns, "Wireless networks in public areas and hot spots like Internet cafes may not provide any security. Although some service providers do provide this with their custom software, many hot spots leave all security turned off to make it easier to access and get on the network in the first place."

These days, there's no escaping technology's reach. With 28,000 current hot spots — soon be 160,000 — the information "leash" is getting tighter. Those idyllic vacation spots will not be secluded for much longer. For someone like me though, it is close to nirvana. I can now check my email while in line for the drive-up window — with my wife driving, of course!

Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry's first computers in 1978. For more than 20 years, he has taught courses on technology throughout the country. He is a mainstay at technology sessions, including annual appearances at the Yankee.Dental Congress, and has been a part of the ADA's Technology Day since its inception. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www.computersindentistry.com) and can be reached by email at drpaul@computersindentistry.com.

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