How to Making the Airport Router Connection

Cutting the work umbilical cord is nearly impossible these days, whether traveling for business or pleasure. We're expected to be accessible via email and cell phone at all times, even when on the road. But keeping connected has gotten much easier thanks to the increasing availability of high-speed Wi-Fi access in airports (and even in the sky). Formerly wasted time spent waiting in terminals can be made productive at low cost, eliminating the bleary-eyed late-night email check from your hotel.

Pop into most of the country's largest airports, fire up a laptop or handheld computer with Wi-Fi, and one or more networks will appear. Pick the best one, login with an existing account or pay as you go, and you're online. How did we live without this?

Airports router have always been seen as perfect locations for public Wi-Fi access, and early installations began in 2000 in high-tech meccas like Seattle, Austin, and Dallas. The odd dotcom-era project run by companies like Nokia added Wi-Fi to airports as diverse as Ottawa, Vancouver, and Denver -- without having a permanent operator to handle the actual service. But it took until 2005 for Wi-Fi to finally cover most major airports across the U.S. and Canada.

Today, about 100 North American airports have coverage that is generally airport-wide, covering all terminals and gates beyond security. Some airports have three or four networks to choose from: a comprehensive network (rarely but occasionally two such networks), plus two or three others that run across several gates, a food court, an airline club lounge, or even a single shop.

Most airport Wi-Fi router networks charge for service. A few airlines, including AirTran and JetBlue, provide free departure-gate access in some of the cities they serve, and Las Vegas' McCarran (LAS) notably offers free Wi-Fi in most of the airport. A test no-cost deployment of Wi-Fi in Portland, Oregon, has brought in high-speed Internet service across much of the facility as part of an effort to make Portland International (PDX) more appealing to business travelers. But with most airports served by providers with unlimited monthly service plans (see What it Costs), free Wi-Fi is probably incidental to most travelers.

Those who want to travel without computers aren't left out, by the way. Wi-Fi-equipped PDAs work just fine at most airport hotspots for email and Web access, and an increasing number of airports also feature Internet kiosks -- if your email provider offers a Webmail interface or you use Webmail as your primary address, you can surf without wires -- and without your own hardware.

Another great option for travel is high-speed cell-data access, which you can combine with voice service for one monthly fee. Right now, Cingular's EDGE service is the fastest cell data option available nationally, and in most U.S. airports. EDGE operates at speeds of 50 to 100 Kbps on average. Verizon Wireless is quickly rolling out its even faster EV-DO service, so check coverage maps and plans before you buy. Our complete guide to cell data has more on technologies, providers, and plans.