Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

After Sandy, Wi-Fi Becomes Precious Commodity

During an emergency, one of the most precious commodities is information and the ability to communicate it without impediments. When the old reliable phone networks are creaky and central offices are flooded and wireless phone networks are strained to the breaking point with demand for voice calls, one of the most precious things someone might be able to find is an open, free and reliable Wi-Fi connection.

With power out south of about 34th Street in Manhattan and throughout much of New Jersey and Long Island, it seems a little ridiculous at first to wonder where the steadiest free and open Wi-Fi hotspots are. But the need is there. The U.K.’s Daily Mail noted clumps of people in Manhattan huddling around working power outlets to charge devices, and also gathering near working Wi-Fi coverage outside, of all things, the closed Starbucks coffee joints.

I’m starting to gather as much information as I can find about available Wi-Fi. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Cable giant Comcast has opened up to anyone the Wi-Fi hotspots it usually reserves for its home broadband customers. Wi-Fi hotspots in Comcast territories in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine are open to anyone. Look for the xfinitywifi network name and when prompted click the “not a Comcast subscriber” link at the bottom of the sign-in page and then select “Complimentary Trial Session.” You’ll have to renew your session every two hours, and the offer goes until Nov. 7. You can find a map of working hotspots here.

In New York City, free Wi-Fi is usually available in city parks in partnership with AT&T, but since the parks are closed, and just getting close to one isn’t exactly a good idea right now what with the falling trees and all, that’s not much of an option.

There is a network of free and documented open Wi-Fi hotspots all over the city at, but the map appears not to be working. Instead I found a link to a PDF document that claims to be updated as of today, showing known hotspots around the city. Know this: Your mileage may vary.

Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation announced a new organization called the Open Wireless Movement, dedicated to convincing people to take advantage of the guest networking functions on their Wi-Fi routers so that people can use them.

Adi Kamdar, writing for the EFF today, argues that people shouldn’t have to skirt the rules of their wireless phone company’s restrictions to tether their smartphone for wireless access. “And tethering would not be necessary if there were ubiquitous open wireless, so that anyone with a connection and power can share their network with the neighborhood.”

Not a bad idea. I’ll keep updating this post as I learn more about what’s available and where.

Here’s an update: I just got off the phone with a contact at Boingo Wireless, the WiFi service. The company operates a bunch of Wireless Hotspots in and around New York City, some in cooperation with a company called Towerstream. (See the Boingo map here.) I’m hoping to learn more about the conditions of the Towerstream hotspots shortly. [Update: As I suspected, since there’s no power south of 34th St. in Manhattan, there’s no Wi-Fi available from these hot spots.]

It turns out that Boingo has some promotions running. Through the end of today, it is running a deal with AOL. So look for a network named “Free AOL Wifi.” I asked if it was possible to know for certain if the hot spots are working in areas where power is down — implying that maybe there’s backup power — and the fact is it’s hard to know so as I mentioned above your mileage may vary. But now you know that if you see that network name, you can use it for free.”

Starting Thursday — tomorrow — Boingo is running a promotion with Microsoft. The network name is “Free Wifi by Microsoft.” So look for that one then. Again, it’s hard to know exactly where these hotspots are located, but if you’re stuck in New York and looking for WiFi, keep an eye out.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus