Friday, November 14, 2008

Connecting a laptop to the Internet

My brother-in-law, a Roman Catholic priest, wrote to ask me how to connect a laptop to the Internet when travelling - for example in someone's home. (He's somewhat new to the concept of portable computing). I replied as follows.


There are several ways.

1. If the person has a home router with Ethernet sockets, (and an Ethernet cable) then you can just plug the Ethernet cable into your laptop and you are good to go.

2. However, the more usual situation is when the person has WiFi (i.e. they have a broadband router which provides WiFi throughout the home). Make sure your laptop has its WiFi switched on - there's usually a small switch somewhere.

Windows Vista will automatically detect the WiFi signal and will put up some dialogue windows which are pretty obvious, to allow you to connect. If the WiFi is encrypted (which it should be, but not everyone does it), then one of the dialogue windows will ask you to input the correct password or pass phrase. The person who owns the network should be able to tell you if they trust you!

3. Alternatively, you may be able to find a WiFi hotspot at a hotel, cafe, airport or station. Again, Vista can detect this. Usually what happens is that when you start the browser, it goes directly to the hotspot provider's 'landing page' and you will be asked to buy some time. The rate is usually around £6 per hour and you can use a credit card; in a hotel it may go on your bill. It's OK as this bit of the process is encrypted. Full instructions are always provided.

You should note that public hotspots are not encrypted for general Internet usage which would be a security issue if you were planning on sending anything truly confidential.

In general, WiFi is now pretty ubiquitous and I have not had too many problems when travelling around (at least in first world countries!). The main thing is to make sure the WiFi on your laptop is actually switched on! WiFi on a laptop can be a bit of a power hog so it's advisable to switch it off when running on batteries - also on planes they like you to turn it off.

Best of luck!



My brother, Adrian, emailed me to point out I had forgotten a very obvious way to solve this problem. I therefore sent the following supplementary note.

I omitted to mention that it's possible to connect to the Internet from a laptop via the mobile phone network. It works best if there's a 3G network. Probably too expensive an option if you're roaming, unless you're doing a quick email check, but if you're in Peru for a while you could maybe get a Vodafone-type data connection (it just plugs into the USB socket). The issue may be with length of contract.

It's also possible via a mobile phone itself - you could check if yours can do it.