Wireless on the Road

A few tips and tricks for finding Wi-Fi access on your next road trip.
Other Common Problems

You also may find that you pick up a nearby pay access point instead of the free one you were hoping for. Most of the pay services serve you a DHCP address and correct DNS info, but you aren't able to make any mail or SSH connections. In a situation like this, fire up a browser and visit any Web page. Most of the pay wireless services intercept Web requests and serve up a page with information on subscribing. Once you see this, you know what's up and can choose to subscribe or not.

Another common problem is latency. Maybe you got a good DHCP address and DNS is working okay, but periodically the network simply disappears for a few seconds or minutes at a time. This situation, unfortunately, is common among public and hotel wireless setups, and you should be prepared to deal with it. If you can, handle your mail with batch processing: download it all with POP or off-line IMAP, read it locally and then synchronize your mailbox later. If you need to use SSH or a similar interactive protocol, be aware that the network may disappear at any time; save your work often.

Access Outside Your Hotel

What if you weren't able to book a room in a hotel that offers Wi-Fi? What are the options then? Many truck-stop chains offer paid wireless access, as do many airports, coffee shops and a few other stores. Usually these businesses offer access by intercepting browser requests and directing you to a subscription form, on which you can buy access for a day or for longer periods. If you fill out one of these forms over an open wireless link, consider checking that your browser shows you certificate information for each SSL site--you probably checked a "don't show me this again" box for that at some point. In this case, you want to make sure, before typing in credit card or other personal information, that the site requesting the information really is who it says it is. Aside from that, buying access should be a straightforward task.

Ask around town about Internet cafes. In the places I travel, people give me funny looks or else I end up finding a place that has a few Windows computers that people can use for $5/hr or something--not much help. But your luck might be better. Some Web sites are available too that try to list wireless access points (see Resources), but I haven't found them to be accurate for small rural towns.

If your wireless card supports it, you could try driving around town scanning for open wireless networks-- sometimes called wardriving. You might find an Internet cafe where you can sip a latte or a public library with a wireless connection open to everyone. Until the Yellow Pages adds a category for Internet, scanning is sometimes the only way to find such places. Try iwlist eth0 scan, replacing eth0 with the name of your wireless card, if different. Or use one of the Net sniffer programs listed in Resources.

Conclusion

Wireless Internet access is becoming increasingly common, even in rural areas. If you're prepared to deal with a few glitches, you probably can keep your Linux laptop connected while traveling without ever having to fuss with a telephone line. You even may find that it's easier to get a high-speed wireless connection than it is to find a local modem dial-up number.

Resources

Wi-Fi Locator Pages

Wififreespot

jiwire

Wiredfreespot - hotels that offer wired Internet access

wifimaps.com

Google - add "Wi-Fi" as a query keyword

Net Sniffer Tools

Apradar

Kismet

Airsnort

Ethereal

Akkana Peck is a software developer who has been working with Linux, UNIX and open source for longer than she cares to admit. When she's not fiddling with her laptop on trips, she lives in the Bay area with her husband and a collection of obsolete computer hardware. She can be reached at dev@shallowsky.com.

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Can-free Cantenna

Hal Stanton's picture

Check out http://www.a42.com/node/73 for a can-free alternative to the cantenna. It is made out of 4" PVC pipe. Thus, waterproof, rustproof and probably cheaper than having to buy a lot of canned fruit salad.

Cellular

Anonymous's picture

any new ways too connect a cell card like verizion 555 data card to Linux

WiFi access while travelling: Try Starbucks

Michael Shiloh's picture

This is not meant to be an ad for Starbucks Coffee, but I've heard from a number of seasoned travellers that the most reliable public WiFi access was at Starbucks. In my limited experience I found this to be the case as well. In addition, you can find Starbucks most anywhere, and they are listed in the Yellow Pages so you can search for them before you have Internet access (Yellow Page Google? Let your fingers do the Googling? Manual Google?)

Starbucks

Anonymous's picture

I agree. I've used this service a dozen times or so in several cities and it's solid and fast. The signup process is a little slow, but that's because they want you to buy a monthly plan or combined T-Mobile cell phone/Wi-Fi plan.

Beware of hotel phones

Nate Bargmann's picture

I've started carrying a wireless card (Atheros with the Madwifi driver) even though my primary 'Net access is via dial-up. The author mentions not understanding the need for a data port on the phone.

As someone who works on phone system, I caution anyone from just plugging into the wall jack. Not all of those jacks provide a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line and many are a proprietary digital line that can damage your laptop's modem. If the data port is available, use it. Don't assume you can connect directly to the jack in the wall unless you have a line tester.

I know it's not real geeky to still rely on a dial-up ISP. In this part of the US I find that my current dial-up ISP still provides me with the best mobile flexibility and reliability. I can live without the ultimate speed and value a reliable connection highly.

The hotel's wireless may not always work so having a dial-up connection to fall back on was a good thing a few weeks back. I was staying at a motel in Wichita, KS that has open and free APs. The only problem was that their service died a couple of hours after I checked in. Two of us troubleshot our laptops the next evening and it was evident that the hotel had no route to the outside world. A call to the front desk only resulted in being given a phone number of the provider which wasn't answered. Get this, I as a paying guest was expected to report problems with their system to the provider.

This is my first and only experience with hotel WiFi and I hope the next improves. If nothing else, it allowed me to configure waproamd for the place.

Additional resource

brent baker's picture

One additional resource for consideration is PluggedInns.com. It's not wireless specific, but it's fairly comprehensive with more than 4500 US hotels offering high speed internet access of one type or another.

What I call this trick

Dan Allen's picture

I call this trick wireless grab-bagging. I actually blogged about it on my website.

I believe that the more the internet becomes an "open" resource in the sense that a connection is just out there waiting for you to pick it up (just like cellphones) the more upright humans will become again (recall the evolution poster of a man crunched over a computer). I have always said that the best superhuman power a person could possess is the ability to query google in one's head.

Soup can ain't gonna work wel

Jon's picture

Soup can ain't gonna work well. The can needs to be the correct diameter + length. A Pringles can comes close and has worked well for others. But save yourself the hassle of soldering your own connectors and just buy one from Cantenna.com for 20 bucks (last time I checked). They should also have the right cables you'll need. Use Netstumbler to check your signal gain! It's free on netstumbler.org--J.

See the Homebrew Antenna Shoo

Anonymous's picture

See the Homebrew Antenna Shootout for a test of different can sizes. I heard Foster's beer cans are good too.

You can also use the Poor Man

Anonymous's picture

You can also use the Poor Man's Theremin to find a good spot to connect. Just move the laptop around and listen to the pitch change.

use screen with ssh

Anonymous's picture

if you use ssh then screen will go a long way to help you not loose any work when the connection gets interrupted.

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