How To Spot The Best Hotspots

Some hotspots are free and fast, some cost money and are slow. Here's a review of eight hotspots and tips about picking the most secure, cost-effective wireless access.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 7, 2005

7 Min Read

Editor's Note: From time to time, Mobile Pipeline contributors check in from the road to report on their mobile experiences. In this latest dispatch in the Roaming series, Sean Ginevan tours free and paid hotspots in the Washington, D.C. area and reports what he found.

I settled in at Panera, launched my laptop and logged in effortlessly to the free hotspot. Wondering how good free access would be, I was a bit surprised to find a solid connection and a toll-free tech support number on the landing page. And the coffee was pretty decent, too.

It's hardly news that Wi-Fi hotspots are springing up like mushrooms. What can be surprising, though, is the variety of hotspots that are available. Some are meant to generate cash for both the providers and the venues while others, such as the ones in the Panera chain of restaurants, offer free access in hopes they will draw people in.

Curious about the differences between hotspots, I took a casual tour of hotspots in the Washington, D.C., visiting six commercial hotspots and two free ones. I conducted a minimum of three throughput tests at each location (results are on page 3) and also tried streaming video and audio, which I played at the highest quality possible.

Here's what I found.

Paid Hotspots

Paid Wi-Fi services are available from a variety of vendors including T-Mobile, Boingo, SBC, and a host of others. There are a variety of pricing options from pay-as-you-go options (hourly or daily access) to monthly accounts that allow for unlimited access at the vendor's hotspots.

Pricing is all over the map, typically ranging from $6 to $10 for daily access and $20 to $40 for monthly access. In addition, some vendors offer prepaid access cards that provide discounts on pay-as-you-go basis.

The problem, however, is that there is little roaming among the various hotspot vendors. With cellular phones, it doesn't matter, in terms of service, which network you are accessing. You make your call and, if there are roaming fees, you may see them (depending on your plan) on your monthly bills. Unfortunately, it's not yet that simple, in most cases, with Wi-Fi hotspots.

As a result, there are a variety of factors that you should use when deciding on a hotspot vendor -- if you decide on a single vendor at all. Besides possible roaming agreements, those factors include how often you travel and what existing vendor relationships you have. For instance, you logically may choose to have a monthly Wi-Fi subscription with, say, Sprint or T-Mobile if you already get cellular service from those carriers. That way, you may get a price discount and you'll deal with only one vendor and, typically, one bill.

Performance: Free Vs. Paid

During my travels around the Washington, D.C. area, I was impressed with the performance of most of the hotspots I visited.

The free hotspots I visited had good performance, with throughput rates ranging from 500Kb to just over 1Mb per second.

Overall, paid hotspots had better performance with throughput rates ranging from just under 1Mb to almost 1.5Mb per second. My visits to Caribou Coffee were a notable exception. Throughput rates at their hotspots (powered by SBC) ranged from 250 to around 350 Kb/sec.

While I didn't try every hotspot from every hotspot provider in the D.C. area, I was pretty disappointed in the slower hotspots. As cheap as high speed Internet access is today, there's no reason why throughput rates should be less than 500Kb per second.

Still, with the exception of Caribou Coffee, the hotspots I visited easily and smoothly handled "broadband quality" streaming video and audio. Nor did I run into any problems using Microsoft Remote Desktop to access my workstation at home, my corporate VPN software, popular applications such as e-mail, Web, or IRC with any hotspot I visited. Is It Secure?

With all of the attention paid to Wi-Fi security over the past few years, I was genuinely surprised at the number of unsecured access points I found during my travels. At one cafe in downtown D.C., I found not one, but four, different unsecured access points. I wasn't using a directional antenna or any special equipment; I simply sat by a window facing several office buildings. Even worse, one unsecured access point provided better signal strength from where I was sitting than the actual paid hotspot in the cafe.

Most public hotspots, whether paid or unpaid, don't have any security measures in place. What's a user to do? Fortunately, some hotspot vendors are changing. Some, such as T-Mobile (Starbucks, Borders), allow for 802.1x and WPA security when the hotspot is used in conjunction with the vendor's connection management software.

Simple canniness, however, can mitigate many security risks. Be sure to use secure Web sites if you're transferring personal data or passwords -- look for the little lock icon in the status bar of your browser to know whether the site is secure. Also, use your company's VPN (if available) when you're working with sensitive data.

Last, third party VPN subscriptions are available, some of which were recently reviewed in Mobile Pipeline. These are relatively inexpensive services -- typically less than $10 a month -- and provide secure access from your mobile device to the access point.

Some Frustrations

During my hotspot tour, I enjoyed the access and, often, the coffee, but there were some minor annoyances.

The biggest annoyance related to power. Wi-Fi is well known to increase the power consumption of portable devices. Because of that fact, one would think that hotspot venues would put in extra outlets for their customers. After all, that would keep hotspot users in the location, drinking coffee or whatever, for a longer time.

However in my travels I was lucky to find a couple of outlets in a given location. If you find yourself traveling and using hotspots often, it may be beneficial to bring an extra battery and possibly a small power strip so you can share an outlet with other customers.


One bottom line question I asked myself as I began my journey was whether Wi-Fi is worth paying for. That answer depends on your personal needs and usage.

I found that paid hotspots usually (but not always) offer better performance than the free hotspots. Many also offer better security if you use the connection software that supports 802.1x and WPA.

It also depends on how often you use hotspots. If you use them a fair amount, a monthly account may be the right idea. Otherwise, my own preference would be to purchase a prepaid card from the vendors you think you'll use. These cards are generally good for a few months and are perfect for the occasional user.

On the other hand, if you're simply looking for a place to relax and use the Internet, free hotspots are an equally good option. While security isn't as strong, the performance is usually more than adequate for casual use. The following table summarizes upload and download speeds at the eight tested hotspots.







1111 Kbps

1072 Kbps

Caribou Coffee

SBC FreedomLink

243 Kbps

129 Kbps

Caribou Coffee

SBC FreedomLink

345 Kbps

127 Kbps

Dr. Dremo's


651 Kbps

580 Kbps



1369 Kbps

970 Kbps



1106 Kbps

319 Kbps



1368 Kbps

995 Kbps



1411 Kbps

1057 Kbps

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