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Pay phone booths are a relic of the recent past, but they may soon offer smartphone users something new: free Wi-Fi.
The New York Times reports NYC has just converted 10 booths into Wi-Fi hotspots, with plans to do the same to a few more of its 12,360 pay phones soon. With booth maintenance contracts set to expire in 2014, they might decide to convert more.
If successful, it’s easy to imagine this initiative taking off in other cities. Many have tried and failed to implement public networks – most recently in Hollywood, Fla. On July 2, the local paper called the city’s effort “a $3.8 million Wi-Fi debacle.”
As a laptop user, Wi-Fi’s been important to me for a long time. All else being equal, I won’t stay at a hotel that charges for Wi-Fi – not when it’s free at McDonald’s and Starbucks. And as more people buy smartphones or Wi-Fi-only e-readers and tablets, the demand for Wi-Fi will probably keep growing. Here are some easy ways to get free access…
1. Corporate chains
Whether they sell fries or office supplies, several chains offer free Internet access at many (and sometimes all) locations. Here’s a partial list of places that usually have free Wi-Fi…
- Whole Foods (some; check store Web pages)
- Barnes and Noble (all)
- McDonald’s (11,500-plus searchable locations)
- Burger King (some; call)
- Chick-Fil-A (some; check the wireless box)
- Denny’s (some; call)
- Starbucks (all)
- Dunkin’ Donuts (some; look for Wi-Fi button)
- Panera Bread (all; often capped during peak afternoon hours)
- FedEx (1,800-plus searchable locations)
2. Cable/phone/Internet companies
You may notice that many of the major chains use AT&T to power their free Wi-Fi. If you’re an AT&T Wireless or U-Verse customer, you probably have free access to thousands of hotspots that use AT&T’s infrastructure but normally charge access fees.
In May, five of the biggest cable providers – Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast/Xfinity, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable – teamed up to offer more than 50,000 shared Wi-Fi hotspots in major cities including NYC, Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando, and Philadelphia. If you’re a subscriber to any of those providers, you get free wireless Internet from all of them. The list keeps expanding, and you can learn more at CableWiFi.com.
3. Hotel loyalty programs
I already mentioned I wouldn’t stay at a hotel that charges for Wi-Fi over a similarly priced hotel that didn’t. In other words, I’d rather pay the difference to the business that looks at Internet as a courtesy instead of revenue.
Fortunately, that leaves me with a huge list of options – take a look at HotelChatter’s 2012 list of best hotels for free Wi-Fi. You can sometimes broaden the list by signing up for a brand’s free loyalty program – and while I might groan about their spam emails until I filter them out, I’m not above getting my free Wi-Fi this way.
4. Check a database
Free Wi-Fi is well-documented online. Head to WiFiFreeSpot.com and you’ll find state-by-state and city-by-city lists of locations, as well as categories of hotspots such as airports, campgrounds, and chain stores.
There are security risks when using public Wi-Fi – check out OnGuardOnline.gov’s tips for protecting yourself.