April 3, 2007

Does wireless come with that shake?

James Browdy: Photo by Richard Meadows James Browdy, who’s retired from his job at Audubon Hospital, says he visits the Heine Bros. at Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road four or five days to check out jazz videos through a Wi-Fi connection.While I’m over here in Italy checking out the wine and food and trying to find a WiFi hotspot so I can call home, Eat ’N’ Blog contributor RICHARD MEADOWS has been toting his notebook computer around Louisville, checking out the state of the wireless Internet art at local eateries and watering holes.Richard, a foodie and computer geek with plenty of opinions about both, has been surfing the WiFi waves since the ’Net first went wireless. Here’s his irreverent report:Sitting at Heine Brothers Coffee in the Highlands one cold, blustery evening, I looked up from my laptop and realized that the place was chock full of WiFi users, all gazing at their own laptops. One, obviously a student, had books, notes and notebooks all around as he researched a project. Another was concentrating on a news article, and a third sported a headset mic and was carrying on a conversation with someone, somewhere out there on the Info Highway. You’ve got your WOW players, your business people reading e-mail and even folks playing games on wireless Nintendo against opponents who-knows-where.  WiFi — short for “wireless fidelity” — allows you to connect directly to the Internet without plugging in a modem, assuming your computer has built-in wireless technology or a wireless card. Sometimes at blazing speeds (up to 54bps, in tech talk), WiFi allows on-the-go computer users to log on and read their e-mail, collaborate, read news and do all the things you can do when you’re plugged in to the ’Net.Michael Butterworth: Photo by Richard Meadows Michael Butterworth, a Boyce College sophomore, frequently visits Sunergos to read coursework, listen to bands on MySpace and visit Facebook.In Louisville, WiFi accessibility has grown exponentially over the past couple of years, with new locations (called “hotspots”) added just about every day. Hotspots are found in coffee houses and in four-star restaurants, in bookstores, libraries and even in the air around Waterfront Park. Chain and independent businesses often provide WiFi access, some for free, others as a pay-as-you-go service.  A word of caution if you are new to WiFi: Do not enter personal or confidential financial data over a public WiFi access point. Your computer is broadcasting that data wirelessly, and it is subject to being intercepted by the bad guys. Without going too far into technical details, trust me: It is just plain safer never to transmit anything you don’t want the world to see or know when you’re using WiFi through a public access point. “Safe Hex” is as important on a laptop at Tony Boombozz as it is at your office computer or at home with the desktop in the den. You don’t want to be giving a “sniffer” or “snooper” access to your banking account password; nor should you be sharing that flirty Instant Message you are sending to the office manager.Where to WiFiJust about all local coffee houses in Louisville have WiFi. Heine Brothers, Atomic Saucer, Highland Coffee, Sunergos Coffee and Day’s Espresso & Coffee all offer free WiFi access to their customers. At Starbucks, on the other hand, in addition to your fat-free latte bold two-shot extra foam, you can also use their WiFi ... provided you pay T-Mobile $29.99 a month, $6 for 60 minutes and 10 cents a minute thereafter, or $9.99 for a day pass. Why anyone would spend that kind of money when there’s free access as close as your local indie coffee shop is beyond me.Noah Cooksey: Photo by Richard Meadows Seneca High School teacher Noah Cooksey appreciates the connection at the Douglass Loop Heine Bros. He listens to music and does research as he studies to become a National Board Certified English teacher.Of course, when you buy that cuppa joe, you are helping pay for the coffee shop’s WiFi whether you use it or not. But if Heine’s and Day’s can do it, you’d think Starbucks is big enough to offer free WiFi access without hurting their bottom line. Curiously, for what it’s worth, in a few Starbucks locations I have found open free access WiFi available in addition to the pay-for-use T-Mobile. The location at Baxter and Highland avenues, for example, usually shows four to six connections available from other sources that work for free.If Starbucks prefers a corporate chain model for free WiFi, it might take a look at Panera Bread, which offers fast-loading, high-speed WiFi. Panera does ask (in the fine print when you log on) that customers limit use to 30 minutes during the lunch hours from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., to ensure capacity for everyone who wants to use it. Also, if you like to drop by some of those Web sites when nobody’s peeking, Panera does censor sites on the basis of content, including some that seem fairly tame, such as London’s Sun newspaper. (Europeans, including our British forefathers, seem to have a more tolerant attitude about what is appropriate in a daily newspaper. Panera apparently doesn’t approve of its customers feasting their eyes on the Sun’s sporty Page 3 photo.)It has become second nature for me to ask if a restaurant has WiFi when I go in, and in many cases I am pleasantly surprised to learn that they do. The Monkey Wrench on Grinstead at Barrett offers it, for instance, and servers are happy to point out several booths that boast electrical outlets and locations where you can plug in to their network to surf the ’Net, err, to do work, that is. Other traditional restaurants with WiFi include The Pink Door, Asiatique, Just Fresh Bakery & Cafe and Toast on Market. Indeed, if you like, you can surf the Internet as you get that new tattoo at Tattoo Charlie’s on Berry Boulevard. Even if you don’t care to “surf and tattoo,” you might want to hit Google Images just long enough to show them the design you want.No WiFi With ThatWith some fanfare, McDonald’s announced in early January that its local restaurants would be upgrading facilities and installing WiFi for customer use. The announcement indicated that the 90 local Mickey D’s would be offering free wireless Internet access, among other tech updates. Intrigued by the notion of surfing with my Big Mac, I checked it out and quickly found that Ronald McD’s wireless connectivity was being provided by Wayport. Surprise, surprise, surprise! It’s not free. Indeed, to access the Web at a Louisville-area McDonald’s, you must: (1) Purchase a one-time connection with a credit card online; (2) Use a Wayport membership; (3) Use a Wayport prepaid card; (4) Use a promotional coupon (handed out now and then in the restaurants); or (5) Use a roaming partner membership or subscription such as the trademarked SBC “Freedomlink.”My experiences during WiFi sleuthing at Metro-area McDonald’s ranged from incredible to absurd. I would pick up strong WiFi signals ... and smiling-faced managers would tell me they didn’t have it. One smiling face asked if “WiFi” was an ingredient. Not a single McDonald’s staffer could find or purchase a clue about limited-time free-access coupons. One manager thought for a moment, then pointed to a box on the wall of the office and told me that was WiFi. I parked at one McDonald’s with a window-size sign that read, “WiFi Available.” I asked the smiling face, which pondered a moment, looking off in a daze, then noticed the sign and said, “Why, yes! Yes, we have WiFi!” He then added, “Ain’t no coupons, but there is a number in the office you can call.” Ain’t going to be surfing at McDonald’s.To view my best shot at a comprehensive directory of WiFi hotspots in Metro Louisville, click your Web browser to http://members.iglou.com/richardm/hotspots.html. NibblesHearty Burgundy with Robin GarrIf you’ve long dreamed of learning Burgundy and its wines with an expert guide but thought you couldn’t possibly afford it, I invite you to consider The Terroirs of Burgundy, a weeklong tour that I’ll be personally leading this summer in partnership with the respected, Paris-based wine-touring company French Wine Explorers.We’ve crafted a special, once-in-a-lifetime tour aimed at thrifty, value-seeking wine lovers, featuring quality accommodations, memorable meals showcasing regional cuisine, and VIP-level tours of top Burgundy producers.The tour will be July 2-7 and is strictly limited to 16 wine lovers. You can review the itinerary and details online at www.wineloverspage.com/tour. Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com