Five Ways to Get Free Wi-Fi, Even in Troubled Economic Times

Whether you're out of work and searching for a job, or searching the Web for meaning in all this financial chaos, you need an Internet connection now more than ever. Here's a list of some obvious and not-so-obvious places to go for free Wi-Fi.

The economy is in the toilet. Maybe you've been laid off (or you're worrying that the proverbial ax will soon fall at your company). It's not that difficult to foresee a bunch of bills starting to pile up at home—one being your monthly Internet connection.

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But you absolutely need Internet connectivity to do anything today: to find a new job, network with colleagues and business friends, and check your LinkedIn, Facebook and Gmail accounts, just to name a few. So as everyone looks to cut costs and everyday expenses, here are five ways to hitch a free ride on the Internet connectivity train.

1. Go to a Panera. This is, by no means, an advertisement for Panera Bread Company (though, you have to admit that their bread products and cookies are delicious), but since 2003, the chain of restaurants has offered free Wi-Fi to all its customers.

Wall St guy
Don't fret! There's free Wi-Fi at Panera just around the corner.

CIO Tom Kish told CIO.com that Panera has "established one of the largest free Wi-Fi networks in the U.S. with approximately 1,200 cafes providing the service," and that executives "see it as another amenity for our customers."

Kish added that "free Internet access is one of a series of Panera's innovations designed to engage, connect and support our customers."

However, if you're married to Starbucks and you want access to their two-hour-a-day "complimentary" Wi-Fi access, you'll have to get a Starbucks Rewards card, put some money on the card (defeating our purpose, of course) and agree to receive some AT&T marketing e-mails. (To read an analysis of the Wi-Fi strategies at Starbucks, Panera, McDonald's and Borders, see "Should Retailers Offer Free Wi-Fi to Customers?")

You want a free lunch, too? Don't be greedy, people.

2. Visit Your Local Library. Unless you've got children, it may have been a long time since you last went to your city's or town's library. Many people will be pleasantly surprised to realize that their town's library now offers free, high-speed Internet connections, and many do so via Wi-Fi service.

According to 2007 data from the American Library Association's annual survey of technologies and Internet offerings inside U.S. libraries (pdf file), 99 percent of library branches offer Internet service to the public, and 66 percent of them offer wireless Internet access. Just make sure you keep quiet—the local senior citizens usually don't like a lot of that "noise" that young whippersnappers make.

3. Love Thy Neighbor's Connection. This one should be a last resort, because it is not legal and not secure (unless you get neighbor Bob's permission and can vouch for his attention to WLAN security protocols).

However, tapping into your neighbor's wireless signals pales in comparison to what some other desperate laptop users have done for an Internet connection: An August 2008 survey of 300 remote employees who work on company-issued laptops revealed that people can be creative and a bit nutty. A sampling of the verbatim responses might give you some (bad) ideas: "Had to climb on my mother's roof once." And: "Had to 'hack' into a phone line at a hotel to get dial-up to work." Then there's: "Turned someone's TV antenna into a wireless internet antenna." And finally: "Sat outside an airport for 4 hours so I could use the free wireless across the street."

4. Across the Pond, Visit Free-Hotspot.com. The name of the service pretty much says it all: Free-Hotspot.com operates 3,500 free hotspots in 18 European countries. Simply log on to their website and find the closest one to you.

And if you're in Belgium, you can get free Wi-Fi service at the McDonald's there. (Sadly, Ronald McDonald makes customers pay for Wi-Fi service in the States.)

5. Watch This "How To" Video. We at CIO.com cannot vouch for the validity of this video, whether this software actually works as shown in the video, or whether this is highly illegal, but maybe it's worth a try: "How to get Free WiFi access anywhere, anytime." (If you're at all curious, the 2 minute, 39 second video on YouTube is worth a quick viewing.)

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