Now that it’s warm, you’ll often find men and women perched outside the Quincy public library after closing time, pecking away at their smartphones. Why not? The free Wi-Fi streaming through the library walls is there for the taking.
Free Wi-Fi is seemingly everywhere — from Starbucks to Dunkin’ Donuts, from Logan Airport to open-air public parks, and other random locations, with the city of Boston rolling out networks of free hotspots in neighborhoods and commercial districts.
Still, the quest for no-cost broadband is a lot more arduous than it ought to be. Signal quality is often spotty and data speeds can be dead slow. And given the limited reach of a standard Wi-Fi hotspot — about 100 yards — it’s often a challenge just to get into range.
For instance, I sampled a free hotspot at the corner of Devine Way and Old Colony Avenue, across from Joe Moakley Park in South Boston. It’s one of dozens Boston installed recently, findable on a handy online map. Still, I had to roam a couple of blocks, smartphone in hand, till I locked in the signal. Too bad there wasn’t a bullseye painted on the pavement.
I’d have also welcomed more bandwidth. The connection delivered just under 1 megabit per second, good for e-mail but little else. And if three people in the nearby housing development ever log on at once, it’ll get worse. The city’s free Wi-Fi is convenient but no substitute for a proper home broadband service.
Luckily I’ve been paying my Comcast Corp. cable bill, which gives me another “free” option. The huge media company now has about three million Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots scattered across the US, with plans to top eight million by year’s end. Hundreds of these hotspots are scattered around Boston. Speed’s pretty decent too — just shy of 7 megabits per second at a hotspot down the street from the Globe. That’s quite good enough for watching YouTube.
A lot of these Xfinity hotspots are actually home Wi-Fi routers that are designed to send two signals. One is for the Comcast subscriber, while the other is open to any passing Comcast customer at no charge. If you’ve gotten a new Comcast router over the past year, it’s probably beaming Wi-Fi to the neighbors. But don’t worry; Comcast vows that subscribers’ own Internet speeds will never be affected if a passerby logs onto this secondary signal. Non-subscribers can log on for free, but only for two hours a month. Or you can pay $2.95 for an hour’s access or $7.95 for a full day.
When you’ve found a public hotspot, how can you be sure it’s safe to use? For example, a hotspot that looks like it’s at your local library could be an “evil twin” device planted by a data thief to trick people into connecting so he can copy your data transmissions or access the files on your laptop hard drive. This isn’t a problem with Xfinity; set up the Wi-Fi account on your mobile device by connecting to Xfinity at home. From then on, the device will log onto other Xfinity routers whenever you’re in range, and ignore any nearby counterfeits.
Other free hotspots are harder to secure. You can protect yourself by setting up a virtual private network, or VPN, on your phone or other mobile device. This is software that encrypts all your data, then routes it through a third-party server to guard your privacy. That way, even if you connect to a phony hotspot, your data is protected.
To use a VPN, you must install a piece of software, and activate it when you’re online. This program connects to the remote VPN network. I got decent performance on my Android phone with a VPN called F-Secure Freedome, though it came at a price of $5 a month. For my Windows 7 laptop, I had success with the free version of CyberGhost VPN.
But all that rerouting of data may slow down your network connection. Running a VPN can make a sluggish Wi-Fi connection virtually unusable.
If you can’t tolerate the VPN slowdown, you could simply avoid doing anything sensitive when connected to a strange mobile hotspot. It’s a good idea never to use such hotspots for activities such as online shopping or banking, where you could reveal your credit card number or address. Just stick to reading the latest news headlines or checking the weather. And if you’ve got a laptop, switch off network file sharing, to keep your documents to yourself.
It’s a nuisance, but unavoidable, because the bad guys find public Wi-Fi irresistible. Just like the rest of us.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.