Free public Wi-Fi isn't always the bargain you hoped for. Photo: Jamie Brown
Free Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, but why risk it when you can stick with mobile broadband?
I've never really understood people's obsession with using free public Wi-Fi wherever possible. Everyone loves the idea of "free", but people don't always consider the security implications. I'm sure if I scrawled "ATM - free transactions" on an empty fridge box, and then hid inside with a card skimmer, some people walking past would happily slide in their bank card and punch in their PIN. Some so-called "free" Wi-Fi hotspots offer about the same level of security.
If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this disturbing statistic from the Department of Communications, released to coincide with Stay Smart Online Week. Young internet users are twice (49%) as likely as the average internet user (24%) to consider internet speed more important than the security of the connection, according to research. So the promise of a fast and free Wi-Fi hotspot could well be enough to entrap them without as much as a second thought.
Unless you're running a Virtual Private Network connection on your handheld device, which most people don't, you never know if other users on an unencrypted network are snooping on your activities and hijacking browser sessions. Even if the hotspot uses a password and WPA security, who is to say that the hotspot is legit, and not a fake designed to trick people into handing over their passwords and other sensitive information? I don't see why you'd risk it when you're already paying for mobile broadband access.
The obsession with free Wi-Fi really feels like a throwback to the bad old days when mobile broadband was frustratingly slow yet incredibly expensive, and you couldn't use your smartphone to generate a Wi-Fi hotspot for your other devices.
These days there should be a reasonable mobile data allowance bundled with your phone plan. So you're already paying for mobile broadband access and it's probably faster than your average public Wi-Fi hotspot. If you can't afford to bump up to the next mobile broadband plan or add an extra data pack, maybe you should curb your mobile data usage rather than falling back on free Wi-Fi. If you need to bump up your mobile allowance, consider whether a standalone wi-fi hotspot is more cost-effective than paying extra on your phone bill.
You can dip into the settings on your smartphone and tablet to see which apps are chewing up your data allowance. Firstly, disable the annoying video auto-play option in the Facebook app. Next, upgrade to the paid versions of so-called free apps which chew through data when downloading advertisements. If apps are automatically uploading large files like photos, see if you can set them to only do so over Wi-Fi at home and not over mobile broadband when you're out and about. You'll be surprised how much of a difference these changes make.
Using free Wi-Fi is obviously attractive when you're overseas, as long as you're taking sensible precautions. But why take that risk when you don't have to? While you're in Australia you're much better off being more frugal with your mobile broadband than regularly relying on free public Wi-Fi.
Do you trust public Wi-Fi? How do you stay safe?
Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.