Wireless and Offline in Yaletown

It’s 8:45pm on Saturday night and I’m wandering around Yaletown looking for some WiFi action. That’s not an add-on service from the local massage parlour—it’s wireless Internet access. Increasingly, cafes and restaurants are offering wireless access to their customers. You just bring your laptop, order your latte and you’re online.

Wireless technology has finally come to the masses, and we’ve greeted it with our credit cards at the ready. It’s estimated that the number of consumer and commercial ‘hot spots’—locations where you can wirelessly log on to the Web—will double in the next year. In homes with multiple computer users, a wireless network reduces the inevitable work-vs-homework-vs-Quake arguments. For businesses, wireless access differentiates you from the offline bistro down the street.

FatPort (www.fatport.com) sets up wireless hotspots at businesses in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. They have five locations in Yaletown alone. Sadly, on Saturday night, all of them were closed for the evening. A lonely, offline geek, I slouched on a bench a FatPort-enabled cafes, trying fruitlessly to access their network.

Of course, I could have gone ‘wardriving’. That’s the enormously-nerdy practice of driving around in a car and using your laptop as a hotspot detector. Through choice or ignorance, plenty of homes and business owners do not secure their wireless networks. This is virtual equivalent of leaving your front door open.

It’s easy to find a hotspot if you know how and where to look. To increase their detection range, some enterprising sorts even add a homemade antenna, typically crafted out of a Pringles can. The aluminium on the inside of the can apparently helps to focus the signal.

FatPort charges users $4.95 an hour, which is a decent price for a reliable, secure service. However, I’d like to see more cafés or restaurants (or marinas or airports) offering the service for free. Once it’s set up, it costs them less than $50 a month to run a hotspot, and the technology is extremely simple to manage. Even if they couldn’t make a half-caf, triple-shot, low-fat macchiato, my laptop-lugging friends and I would always frequent the café with the free access. That kind of competitive edge adds up to $50 a month in coffees and low-fat bagels pretty quickly.

For now, though, I have to pay for my WiFi fix, and only until 9:00pm on weekends. Besides, there are no doubt better ways to spend one’s Saturday nights.

If you know of any local WiFi hotspots, send me an email at darren@darrenbarefoot.com.