Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Why do wi-fi hotspots always leave me cold?
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THE HIGH PRICE OF KEEPING IN TOUCH

Why aren't wireless hotspots more widespread and more affordable?

Assuming you own a computer that doesn't weigh a ton or need tethering to the mains with a chunky power cable, it's fairly easy to couple internet activity with leisure pursuits such as sipping a macchiato, or taking a trip on the National Express coach from Cambridge to London. The ability to surf'n'travel has been a boon for a number of this week's correspondents. "I've met quite a few deadlines thanks to the wi-fi hotspot on the east coast mainline," writes Jon Ramsdale. "It's pretty pricey, though."

In fact, GNER is currently offering a free 24-hour trial on its trains - but accessibility and affordability are still the main problems of wi-fi. By its very nature, a hotspot provides patchy, localised coverage, and network providers concentrate on placing them where people are likely to be toting a laptop: airport lounges, coffee shops, or the aforementioned National Express coach. And although they tend to team up with certain outlets to offer access (e.g. BT Openzone and McDonald's, or T-Mobile and Texaco) you don't always know who will offer you a connection until you flip open your laptop - and the charge for per-minute, no-commitment access tends to be pricy, with Openzone's 20p/min fairly typical. "I was surprised how expensive the British Library's network was," says Monika Lawrenz. "It's currently £4.50 per hour - I only pay £15 for a month at home."

But depending on your location, there can be other options, including a number of free or low-cost networks which are offered as goodwill or added-value gestures by small businesses. "The landlord of The Bell, in Bath," writes Jenny C, "provides internet access for free, and catching up on e-mail with a pint of decent beer is fantastic."

This benevolence may well spread, with yesterday's announcement that a Spanish company, Fonos, plans to turn the world's domestic networks into public hotspots by offering cheap modems and routers in return for a commitment to share connections. Another glimpse of the future might be seen in North America, where plans are still being thrashed out to turn cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and Toronto into giant low-cost hotspots. These moves are furiously battled against by existing internet service providers, but there seems to be a general shift towards wireless being regarded as a basic utility. But while we wait for the ability to send e-mail from any park bench in the UK, network provider The Cloud is imminently launching nine "hotzones" in city centres across the country, with charges starting at £11.99 per month.

Diagnosis required

Simone Brookes writes with next week's question:

"My mum is terrified of using her credit card on the internet, but I'm not sure how to reassure her. How safe is it? Is there an advantage in using other payment systems such as PayPal?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk

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