Unplugged and surfing in the WiFi wonderland

How to find the best deal for laptop access as wireless 'hotspots' spread round the country

WiFi, the wireless internet, is coming soon to a location near you. Whether you're in a friend's home, a café or bar, or on a train, you can in many places already surf the web without having to find somewhere to plug in your laptop cable.

"WiFi hotspots" - the name for outlets equipped to receive the radio waves that power wireless networking - are spreading fast, to small towns and villages as well as the big cities. And last week, plans for a WiFi area covering the whole of London's financial district were unveiled by an internet company called The Cloud.

WiFi can be found with the fries at McDonald's and the lattes at Starbucks, on the Southern Trains network, and in hotels and airports. It is soon to arrive at all Moto service stations.

Today, there are nearly 10,000 hotspots (whose coverage extends to no more than a couple of streets) and several wireless "bands" covering larger areas such as central Bristol and Canary Wharf in London.

"More and more people are trying to connect to the internet while away from home, and one of the most popular ways is a hotspot," says Blair Wadman of Uswitch.com, the price-comparison service.

However, although WiFi is free of wires, it's not usually free of cost. There are plenty of confusing contracts to unpick, as well as different networks to navigate, extra cards to buy and online security worries.

Your basic requirements are a laptop or palm computer and a regular internet service provider, such as Wanadoo, BT or AOL.

The next step is to make sure you are "WiFi enabled". Most new laptops, particularly those with the Intel Centrino processor, let you connect to WiFi as standard, but check with the retailer.

If your machine is older, you can buy a wireless local area network card, says Jay Saw of T-Mobile UK. This card - usually available from around £30 in electronics stores such as PC World - is simply stuck into a port on your laptop.

Before you pop into a café, though, it will probably be better value to set up a separate WiFi account with one of the firms that provide these services.

The two big players are T-Mobile and BT. Sign a deal with the former and you can log on at nearly 1,000 hotspots ranging from airports to Starbucks cafés to Borders bookshops.

With BT's Openzone service, you can get wireless access at 8,400 hotspots in hotels, bars and restaurants across the UK. In both cases, you pay a fee for WiFi access before receiving a password to the account.

Alternatively, you can simply stroll into a WiFi café without an account, pick up the signal and - in most cases - pay upfront to go online. However, you'll usually be charged more for this short-term approach.

With Openzone, charges start from 18p a minute to browse online. This might sound cheap but not when you consider that you can get an hour online for £1 at internet cafés.

An alternative is to sign up for a pay-as-you-go deal with Openzone. Take out a monthly subscription at a cost ranging from £10 to £23, or buy a daily voucher.

With T-Mobile, "walk-in" customers can pay £5 an hour, or £13 a day, using a credit card online.

But regular users can subscribe for unlimited access from £20 a month.

While having different connection options should make it easier to get online while you are on the move, logging on via WiFi in different locations can also cause headaches. "There are the security risks - including being infected by viruses and worms - associated with connecting via 'untrusted' networks," says Paresh Modi, managing director of iPass UK, an online security company.

Make sure your own security software is regularly updated so that it is well equipped to cope with any outside attacks.

Another benefit of WiFi is the proliferation of hot-spots where you don't have to pay anything for access. You can find details of these locations on the web - try www.free-hotspot.com or www.freespot-uk.com. They are often in hotel receptions or cafés.

But consumers need to be aware that where neighbourhoods are set up for WiFi, they could face criminal charges for accessing another person's antennae without permission. However, many homeowners have clubbed together to arrange their own WiFi routers - and don't mind sharing these with others.

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