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Wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) now offer public wireless LAN access at thousands of indoor locations convenient to mobile workers, travelers, and consumers. Typical locations are airports, airline clubs, conference centers, hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Using a laptop or PDA, users can wirelessly access the Internet, or log into a company intranet through a VPN (virtual private network) client.

Public access wireless LANs users laud the convenience that comes with simple, available connectivity without having to search for a data port, fumble for wires or worry about busy signals. Access speed that is 50-200 times faster than dial-up adds to user productivity and makes large file transfer practical. And the service is affordable with flexible payment options and no long distance changes.

Finding public-access locations

Public access points for wireless LAN aren't always indicated with a sign, so it's best to do a little advance research. WLANA is working toward creating comprehensive, worldwide WLAN public access finder and the search engine on this page is our start. Please contact us with sites you find that are missing. In addition, service provider websites offer a list and sometimes a map of their wireless LAN locations.

If you are in an area that you believe has wireless LAN coverage, you can use the software utility that is installed on nearly all wireless LAN enabled devices. The utility will indicate the user's proximity to a public-access link.

How public-access wireless LANs work

Service providers place Access Points at their "WLAN hotspot" which transmit a wireless signal to the wireless card in a user's computer. Users connect through a log-in page in their Internet Web browser. Coverage extends over a 50- to 150-meter radius of the access point. Connection speeds range from 1.6 Mbps with OpenAir technology to 11 Mbps with the IEEE 802.11b wireless Ethernet standard better known as Wi-Fi.

An easier way to pay

Users of public-access wireless LAN services currently have a range of payment options: per use (by the minute, hour, or day), a refillable access card, or by monthly subscription. While these options allow users to budget according to their actual usage, those who venture beyond one provider's service territory must use a service aggregator or must juggle multiple bills and payments.

To address the billing problem with Wi-Fi networks, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), which includes Cisco, IBM, Intel, 3Com, and Microsoft, is working to establish network standards and cooperation among WISPs and carriers. The goal: providers will share subscriber usage and billing data, so users can "roam" just as cellular phone subscribers do - using public-access wireless LAN from multiple carriers - then pay all charges in one consolidated bill from their "home" provider.

Free public access

Some WISPs offer free public access to wireless LAN; the tradeoff with some, as with free ISPs, is exposure to advertising pitches. These community access points are gaining increasing visibility through WLAN public access search tools like the one presented here.