Basic Wi-Fi Ingredients
First, get a copy of Over the Road Wireless For Dummies. Now, I know, I've probably over-promoted Over the Road Wireless For Dummies but, really, especially if you're just getting started with Wi-Fi, you should seriously consider picking up a copy. I wrote the book with more than just Wi-Fi novices in mind, so that even seasoned Wi-Fi hotspot users will find the book more than worth the cover price, but newbies should find it especially helpful. Until you get your copy, though, here's what you need to get started making wireless connections to the Internet:
- A Wi-Fi enabled laptop or PDA. If you've got a laptop or PDA with a built-in Wi-Fi card then you're ready to go. If not, then you can buy a Wi-Fi adapter. Detailed information concerning Wi-Fi adapters, along with reasons you might want to carry an adapter with you even if your laptop's equipped with integrated Wi-Fi capability, is included in the book and I cover Wi-Fi adapters here on the site, as well.
- A credit card. While it's true that there are thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots all around the country; hardly any of them are truck stops. The last time I checked, as a matter of fact, the only truck stop chain offering free Wi-Fi was Bosselman's. Consequently, unless you stop exclusively at Bosselman's, you're going to have to pay for your Wi-Fi time. Surprisingly, though, Wi-Fi at the truck stop is pretty reasonably priced.
You may, at some point in time, decide you want or need additional Wi-Fi hardware. For example, you might find yourself in situations in which a high-power adapter or an external antenna come in handy. You can find out more about these and other hardware accessories in Over the Road Wireless For Dummies but, for now, a Wi-Fi enabled laptop (or PDA) and a way to pay for the connection should suffice. With those two items in hand, you're ready to get connected.
Connect to the Wi-Fi Hotspot
In case you've never made a wireless connection of any kind; the first thing you need to do is open your connection management utility. If you installed a wireless adapter card then chances are better than even that, when you installed the driver, you also installed a connection management utility. If you're laptop has built-in wireless capability then you can use the Wireless Zero Configuration utility included with Windows XP.
If you choose to use the connection management utility included with your Wi-Fi adapter card, or any connection management utility other than the Wireless Zero Configuration (WZC) utility, you should disable the WZC. By disabling the WZC you can avoid potential program conflicts. (I provide complete instructions for disabling the WZC in Over the Road Wireless For Dummies.) You can, however, choose to use the WZC utility with any adapter; built-in or not. If you do choose to use the WZC utility you should uninstall or disable any other connection management utilities you may have loaded onto your laptop.
To open the WZC right-click the icon and select View Available Wireless Networks. The Wireless Network Connection screen opens and you see the names, or SSIDs, of all the available networks. Most of the time it's pretty easy to relate the SSID with the truck stop hotspot you're trying to connect to. In the example below, for instance, it's pretty obvious I'm about to make a connection to a Flying J hotspot. (Truck stop hotspots, like Flying J, use the same SSID from one truck stop to another so they're easy to identify.)
In order to make a hotspot connection simply click the correct SSID, to highlight it, and then click the Connect button in the lower right corner of the Wireless Network Connection screen. After a few computer gymnastics you'll notice Connected to the right of the hotspot SSID you've selected. At this point you can close the Wireless Network Connection screen and open your browser.
By the way, if you use an Apple laptop, like a MacBook or MacBook Pro, this process is a little bit simpler. You just open the AirPort menu and choose the SSID for the Wi-Fi hotspot to which you wish to connect. The computer does the rest and, before you know it, you're connected to the hotspot.
Log-On to the Network
Cool...you're connected to the hotspot. But you're not yet connected to the Internet. To surf, send e-mail, chat, etc. you still need to get logged on. Open the browser of your choice and the first thing you should see is the log on screen for the truck stop hotspot.
When you log on for the first time you need to set up an account. Somewhere on the log-on screen, you'll see a link like the "Create Account" link in the example above. Everybody wants the same basic information. You know; name, address, credit card, first born, etc. When you've finished setting up the account, you'll have a username and password that you can use at every hotspot operated by that truck stop, travel center or WISP. When you set up an account with a WISP like SiriCOMM, for example you're good to go at Petro, Pilot and Love's because SiriCOMM's is the service provider for all three.
And that's it! You're ready to surf to your heart's content!
While getting connected and logged on to the truck stop hotspot you may have noticed a thing or two. For example, you may have made note of the fact that the hotspot was described as an "Unsecured wireless network". All hotspots are, as a matter of fact, unsecured. You can find out more about the security risks, as well as the security measures you can implement, in brief, within the Security section of this site and, in detail, within, you guessed it, Part IV of Over the Road Wireless For Dummies.
Another thing you may have noticed, in the example above, is a very similar looking SSID: "flyingj-be". For security purposes you need to be sure you're connecting to the truck stop hotspot and not some bogus look alike (These are known as "Evil Twins" and I discuss them, and how to avoid them, in the book). If you see something that causes confusion you should point it out to the manager on duty. There may be, as in the case above, a perfectly simple and benign explanation but it could be something more sinister.