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Public Wi-Fi networks growing rapidly

There are expected to be more than 24,000 public Wi-Fi networks by year’s end, researcher Gartner says.

They’re expanding rapidly in offices, restaurants such as Starbucks, stores such as Kinko’s and on university campuses.

The networks work the same way home networks do, which means the Wi-Fi-ready laptop you use at home will probably work with any other Wi-Fi network.

But finding Wi-Fi networks on the road can be tough, as they cannot be seen or heard.

Wi-Fi gear might be hidden from sight so as not to clash with the décor of a store or restaurant. Wi-Fi experts say the trick is to look for:

* Stickers. Many public Wi-Fi hot spots can be identified by a sticker, usually on a window in the coffee shop or store where they operate. Since there are many logos for Wi-Fi services, sometimes you’ll see ”windows that look like race cars, with every sticker from every company on Earth,” says Yankee Group analyst Sarah Kim.

If you spot one that says ”Wi-Fi,” ”hot spot,” or ”802.11” (industry lingo for a Wi-Fi signal), you’re probably near a Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi signals can often be picked up as far as a city block away from where they’re being transmitted.

* Retail chains with Wi-Fi. Several big chains have announced major Wi-Fi rollouts. Try Starbucks, Borders Books & Music and Kinko’s. McDonald’s, too, has a Wi-Fi pilot program in Manhattan. Most major hotel chains have Wi-Fi in at least some of their properties.

* Wireless signals. Computers running the right software can often detect unmarked wireless Internet signals. Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system can often pick them up, as can some specialty software, available free over the Internet.

It can take some technical know-how to run these programs, however.

In most cases, anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or other device can log on. Once you’ve found a network, start up your laptop and see if it automatically connects.

If you connect, you might be asked to enter a credit card number to access a network that costs money. You could be charged by the minute, the day or the month. Fees average about $7 a day.

If you don’t connect automatically, you’ll likely need to change your Wi-Fi settings to log on to a different Wi-Fi network. To do this, you might have to put in a CD-Rom, go to a certain Web page, or follow written instructions.

Ask for details at the location that is running the Wi-Fi network. (It might help to have your laptop and Wi-Fi card owners’ manuals with you.)

Source: USA Today

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