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Tips for Better Wi-Fi on the Road

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Tips for Better Wi-Fi on the RoadTravel, business, and government leaders and pundits have been buzzing about public Wi-Fi for years; projects to wire every corner of major airports have come one after another, upstaged only by projects to wire entire cities. A price and policy war wages among hotel chains as many low and mid-priced chains offer free Internet access while some upscale chains, red-faced but holding tight, still charge as much as $14.95/day for Internet in your room and hotel lobbies.

But just because there is a Wi-Fi signal doesn't mean it will work very well.

For example, on a recent international trip I fired up my laptop in an airport lounge, free Wi-Fi coupon in hand. My wireless card software showed the signal to be very good -- nearly 100 percent.

Why, then, couldn't I get any e-mail to download? Why did my browser just hang, hang, hang?

A quick look around the room held the answer. The room had one or two Wi-Fi access points, and dozens of users competing for those points. The signal was great -- it was also maxxed out.

The situation can get much worse when your signal is weaker, as it often is in hotel rooms. Like cell phones, wireless connections rely on a line-of-sight connection to the access point. Again, you know from your home wireless network that you should place the router antenna up high and clear of clutter, and you get a better signal on the remote computer if you are in direct line with the output. Move a few feet over so there is a wall between you and the source, and you still get signal, but it often suffers dramatically.

In your hotel, your proximity to the hotel's base station or booster, which may be out in the hall or even in the lobby, dictates the strength of signal. Then there is the fact that the entire airport, hotel or location also has to connect up and out to the Internet; logjams can occur at every node along the chain, and you're staring at an hourglass.

So let's say it is evening, just after dinner, and everyone in the hotel is checking their e-mail. The nearest antenna is maxxed out, the network connection is burping and choking -- and you're sitting at a cramped hotel work desk, fuming.

Here are tips for beating the crowds and getting better Wi-Fi.

Computer Wires Find a better Wi-Fi spot.
JiWire.com has become the definitive guide to hotspots worldwide. Check the list before you travel, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration in staking out your access points and expenses. One JiWire.com employee traveled through a half-dozen airports on a cross-country trip and enjoyed high-quality free Internet access the whole way.

Additionally, many travelers staying in a hotel without access (and sometimes with fee access) will head to the lobby of a neighboring hotel to jack in.

Post yourself as near the signal as possible.
Nearly all newer laptops have a signal sniffer, and most wireless cards come with software that does the same thing. Computer stores sell signal finders that specifically help you find wireless signals.

You can do a search dog routine and use your wireless antenna software to sniff out the source, and post up when you get the strongest signal. As most wireless routers are hidden behind ceilings or wall panels, or otherwise out of view, this may be your best bet. "The beauty of Wi-Fi is that it works through walls and doors, so the access point is probably in a utility or other secure area," says David Blumenfeld, VP of marketing at hotspot locator JiWire.com. "Once you have a signal, the best thing to do is walk around and try to improve it."

In a hotel, this may mean to get closer to the door of your room. Most hotels have a single base station, and then place repeaters on each floor, sometimes on every other floor, and use the hallways as "wave guides" to direct signal to your room.

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