A few years ago when you were travelling ‘free’ WiFi spots were few and far between, and you would be lucky to find one (unless travelling in the US where they seem alarmingly open at times — things have changed a bit in the US, but you can still find some open WiFi). These days ‘free’ WiFi is everywhere, but there are a couple of catches…

Security

The first catch is security. Do you know the link is secure? How do you know the guy at the next table is not listening in? Is the link really the link it is claiming to be, or a spoof link so someone can snoop on your data?

To get round this problem, I use a VPN (virtual private network) software. I start up my computer with NOTHING running that requires the net (I know there will be some stuff running in the background as part of the system that will be making connections, but there is no way to easily shut that down). I then fire up my VPN software and make a secure connection to a server I know and trust (and pay to connect to). By using a secure server, it means that any network traffic leaving my machine is encrypted and so I know no one can read the material or see what I am doing (unless they physically look over my shoulder).

Free WiFi

Free WiFi is no longer free…. It may be free regarding cost, but there are so many smartphones, computers and tablets trying to access free WiFi these days that it kills the system. Either the wireless router can’t handle all the simultaneous connections, or the bandwidth is clogged.

Case in point. I wrote this post while sitting in Starbucks in KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2). I can see two free and open WiFi hotspots from my table — Starbucks (obviously) and FreeWiFi@KLIA2. Now, either of these WiFi hotspots could be ‘spoofs’, it could be the guy at the table in the corner pretending to be Starbucks or FreeWiFi@KLIA2, and so I connect, he ‘gives’ me Internet access and then all my traffic goes via his machine (see above for a fix). However, I have tried both hotspots (taking the precaution given above of connecting using VPN), and I can’t even get the VPN to connect. I can’t connect.

The reason for lack of a VPN connection could be that I am dealing with ‘spoofs’, but far more likely (as I have encountered this problem on many occasions) is that the hotspots are so swamped with traffic as to be dead… either no bandwidth or they can’t handle all the connection requests.

One trick that sometimes works, particularly if you are dealing with a ‘location wide’ system such as those found at airports, is going to the corner of a building far away from the crowds and trying to find a wireless router that is not being heavily used. Sometimes by doing this, you can get a connection.

Alternatively, some cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, etc., i.e. places where you sit down to eat or drink, have free WiFi, but you need the code from the waiter, or in the case some Starbucks it will be on the receipt (mind you, there is no guarantee the code will work, recently I have been in ‘coded’ Starbucks where the code doesn’t work). The use of a code limits the number of people connecting, and so improves your chances of getting a connection.

So, there is no such thing as free WiFi as it is impossible to connect if it is ‘open’ due to overuse.

Is there a solution? I don’t know… I keep looking for one, but with no success. My current thinking is to get an unlocked MiFi and use it with local SIMs while on the road.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

(One plus of being in Starbucks is the tables are set up so you can recharge phones and computers.)

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