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Fix Hot Spot Annoyances

by Preston Gralla
02/01/2005

Using a Wi-Fi hot spot is a great way to stay connected when you're away from home or the office. You can find hot spots practically everywhere these days, from cafes to airports and even bagel joints. In fact, as I write this, I'm on a free hot spot at the O'Naturals Café in Somerville, Massachusetts, just around the corner from my house in Cambridge.

But you face a lot of annoyances when you use hot spots as well. While you're sipping your latte, your PC might be vulnerable to snoops and illicit hackers. You also may not be able to send email from a hot spot, because your normal ISP may consider you to be outside its network and therefore a potential freeloader. And sometimes your hot spot connection may "stutter" and kick you off. But fear not--there are easy fixes for these hot spot annoyances. Follow this advice, and you'll be in hot spot heaven.

Solving Security Problems

Hot spots are insecure; they don't use encryption, and so nearby hot spot users can snoop on whatever you do online. Also, because when you're on a hot spot you're connected to the same network as your fellow hot spot users, they can potentially weasel their way onto your PC and inflict damage.

But there's a lot you can do to keep yourself safe:

Related Reading

Internet Annoyances
How to Fix the Most Annoying Things about Going Online
By Preston Gralla

Solve Email Sending Woes

The internet is not the cooperative, friendly place it was several years ago, particularly because of the spamming scourge. To stop their networks from being used by spammers, many ISPs won't let you send email using their SMTP servers unless you're on their network. That means you won't be able to send email when you're on a hot spot.

There's a free workaround, though. The major hot spot providers have SMTP servers that you can use instead of your ISP's. So when you go to a hot spot, change the SMTP settings in your email software, and use the hot spot's SMTP server instead of your ISP's.

Here are the SMTP servers for popular hot spot providers:

How you configure SMTP varies according to the email software you use. But if you use Outlook, choose Tools -> Email Accounts, then click on View or change existing e-mail accounts. From the list that appears, choose your email account and click on Change. In the Outgoing mail server (SMTP) box, type in the name of the SMTP server you want to use (for example, mail.boingo.com), then click on Next and Finish. Figure 1 shows an email account being configured in this way.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Configuring Outlook to use a hot spot's SMTP server.

You can also pay to use an SMTP relay service so that you'll be able to send mail from any hot spot, even if the hot spot provider doesn't have an SMTP server. There are several of them that I've used and can vouch for:

Stop Hot Spot Stuttering

If you're in a location that is near more than one hot spot, your connection may "stutter," meaning your current connection may fade out and XP may try to connect to another hot spot, often unsuccessfully. If you're near several hot spots, this can become maddening.

The problem is caused by the Wireless Zero Configuration utility, which runs when you start XP and looks for a wireless connection to connect to every 3 minutes. It's a great utility because it makes it easy to connect to a hot spot, but it can also cause stuttering if you're in an area with multiple hot spots.

The fix is to disable WZC after you've made a your connection; that way, it'll stay with your one connection, even as it fades out and fades in. But you'll want to reenable WZC after you're done, so that the next time you want to connect to a hot spot or your home Wi-Fi network, it will do the its job for you.

To temporarily disable WZC, select Start -> Run, and in the Open box, type services.msc at the command line and press Enter. That will run the Services Microsoft Management Console. Scroll down until you see the Wireless Zero Configuration entry. Right-click on it, and choose Stop. That will turn the service off, and you'll stop the stuttering and jumping. When you're done with the hot spot, repeat the steps, except choose Start after you right-click on it.

There's More as Well

If you've ever used a hot spot, you may have run into more annoyances than the ones I've outlined here. Maybe you want to find tech support, but the extent of your local coffee barista's help is "Do you want that tall or grande?" Perhaps you want to find out how to connect to a hot spot that's gone cold, or figure out how to cure hot spot amnesia. You'll find the solutions to all those hot spot annoyances, as well as hundreds of other internet annoyances, in my just-released book, Internet Annoyances.

Preston Gralla is the author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell, the Windows Vista Pocket Reference, and is the editor of WindowsDevCenter.com. He is also the author of Internet Annoyances, PC Pest Control, Windows XP Power Hound, and Windows XP Hacks, Second Edition, and co-author of Windows XP Cookbook. He has written more than 30 other books.


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