As college students return in droves to Vermont, many bring at least a few of the staples of college life - Nalgene bottles, value packs of ramen noodles, a laptop.
Computers are indispensable tools for today's students, and laptops are often their drug of choice. If your sleek little Dell or Mac has a wireless Internet card inside, you've got the freedom to check your email, snatch your assignment from your professor's website, or update your Facebook page from wherever.
Er, not quite. If you were attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Google has recently deployed a "wi-fi cloud" covering all of Washtenaw County, you could log on literally anywhere. Students in Vermont have fewer options.
Middlebury, Champlain and Woodbury colleges are among the schools that set up their own hotspots, but students searching for off-campus wi-fi still have to look pretty hard. Given all the independent hotspot operators out there, it's pretty much impossible to find a reliable, comprehensive resource that lists them all.
That's why Seven Days has compiled this public hotspot guide. We've left off hotels, where access is typically reserved for guests, but we've included every other official public hotspot we know of in northern and central Vermont, from McDonald's to the Statehouse to the Williston rest area on the Interstate.
Not surprisingly, the highest concentration is in and around Burlington. Jessica Workman, who runs Speeder & Earl's Pine Street coffeeshop, has been providing the service since 2003. Her café gets broadband from Verizon for between $40 and $50 a month, and provides it to customers free of charge. "It's such a small cost to us," notes Workman, "and people really appreciate it. I'm hard pressed to find a time when there isn't somebody using it."
Wi-fi is also free at Radio Bean on North Winooski Avenue. Owner Lee Anderson has had some technical problems with the service this summer, but reports that his hotspot is back up and running this week.
Anderson was initially reluctant to install the service, he says, because he didn't want his customers isolating themselves behind their screens. But he's since changed his mind about wi-fi. "It's a good thing," he says. "I find that a lot of the people end up talking and chatting about it. People are like, 'How do I log on?'"
But Anderson adds that he can understand why cafés on and near Church Street have been hesitant about offering it; Muddy Waters on Main Street, for example, does not have wi-fi. Neither does Uncommon Grounds. Owner Skip Blakely says he has no plans to invest in the service.
Anderson suggests that's because users sometimes buy a cup of coffee and end up hanging out for hours, surfing the Net. It's bad for business when you can't turn over tables for thirsty tourists looking for a little pick-me-up.
Anderson says that hasn't been a problem at the Bean - the small café is usually only pressed for space during its nighttime live music shows, and then most of those customers leave their laptops at home.
And downtown café owners have another reason not to offer wi-fi - customers who really want it can often still get it, either by stealing it from a nearby resident's unprotected home network, or by paying for it through Summit Wireless.
Summit operates several hotspots in Burlington, including at the Burlington Boathouse, at North Beach Campground, around the Firehouse Gallery and near Homeport. Their antennas reach much of Church Street, though users have to pay for the privilege of using the network. It doesn't cost much - just a few dollars an hour - but as with most pay-to-play wi-fi services, users have to use their credit cards.
Johannes Jobst, Summit's chief technological officer, says it's worth paying for a connection through networks like Summit, Wayport, TMobile and Boingo. "It's not just one network is free and one is paid for," says the Austrian immigrant, "it's, one is not secure and one is very secure."
Jobst points out that people who log on to the free wi-fi hotspots run by cafés such as Speeder's, the Bean and Blue Star in Winooski can open themselves up to a practice called "wi-phishing." "People at the same access point can piggyback into your network," he says.
He gives an example of a Department of Defense employee who uses a free wi-fi access point to log on to General Dynamics' corporate network. "You could potentially easily have people riding that wave right in with him. He is right inside General Dynamics, without giving passwords or anything," Jobst warns. "It is very much like, you plug a cable into your Ethernet port, and someone across the room plugs the other end of that cord into their Ethernet port. With our network, you can't do that."
Alarming scenarios aside, Jobst admits that he hasn't heard many horror stories like this. "People are not out there trying to dump viruses on to people's computers," he concedes. "It's not really a problem yet."
That may be because wi-fi users haven't reached critical mass in Vermont. It's impossible to say exactly how many people are using the state's public hotspots, but Jobst keeps track of how many clients have Summit accounts. Summit is the state's largest public hotspot provider - since it took over administering hotspots created by Soundtivity - and Jobst says it averages between 50 and 100 users a day. That number jumps to more than 300 when the legislature is in session and lawmakers are logging on from Summit's Statehouse access point.
Traffic is particularly slow at the Williston rest area, which gets just a handful of users each day. "It hasn't really caught on yet," Jobst admits.
Summit recently received a state grant to extend wi-fi to all of Vermont's rest areas; Jobst suspects usage will pick up as more people find out it's available. "It could change at any time," he says hopefully.
Another change Jobst is hoping for is a switch from hotspots to larger hot zones. Summit specializes in creating hot zones for commercial clients such as hospitals, and Jobst would like to provide the same service for Vermont communities.
Jobst says Summit is working on a wi-fi cloud that will cover all of Montpelier, which could be operational as early as 2007. He'd like to work with Burlington Telecom to provide the same service to the Queen City, but Richard Donnelly, BT's sales and marketing manager, says BT is focused solely on extending fiber lines to all the houses in town.
Donnelly calls Jobst's goal of bringing widespread wi-fi to the city "a pipe dream." "But," he adds, "Burlington Telecom started with a pipe dream, didn't it?"
WHERE IT'S HOT
The Bagel, 2989 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, free.
Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 102 Dorset Street, South Burlington, $, SBC/Freedomlink.
Blue Star Cafe, 28 Main Street, Winooski, free.
Borders Books &; Cafe, 29 Church Street, Burlington, $, TMobile.
Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, 93 Church Street, Burlington, free, through Boingo and Surf n' Sip.
Burlington Boat House, 1 Lake Street, Burlington, $, Summit.
Cobblestone Deli, 152 Battery Street, Burlington, free.
Dobra Tea, 80 Church Street, Burlington, free.
Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, 21 Library Lane, Williston, free.
Euro Gourmet Cafe, 61 Main Street, Burlington, free.
FedEx Kinko's, 199 Main Street, Burlington, $, TMobile.
Fletcher Free Library, 235 College Street, Burlington, free.
Firehouse Gallery, 135 Church Street, Burlington, $, Summit.
Healthy Living, 4 Market Street, South Burlington, free.
McDonald's, 160 Bank Street, Burlington; 1205 Williston Road, South Burlington; 1125 Shelburne Road, South Burlington; 106 Pearl Street, Essex Junction; 1 South Park Drive, Colchester; 60 Haydenberry Drive, Milton, $, Wayport.
Monkey House,30 Main Street, Winooski, free.
North Beach Campground, 60 Institute Road, Burlington, $, Summit.
Radio Bean, 8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington, free.
Shelburne Shipyard, 4584 Harbor Road, Shelburne, $, Summit.
Speeder & Earl's Roastery, 412 Pine Street, Burlington, free.
Starbucks, 49 Church Street, Burlington; 580 Shelburne Road, South Burlington; 1150 Williston Road, South Burlington; 30 Hawthorne Road, Williston, $, TMobile.
Viva Espresso, 197 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington, free.
Williston Rest Area, I-89, $, Summit.
UPS Store, 1127 North Avenue and 70 South Winooski Avenue, Burlington; 150 Dorset Street, South Burlington, $, Boingo and other providers.
Ilsley Public Library, 75 Main Street, Middlebury, free.
McDonald's, 779 Washington Street, Fair Haven, $, Wayport.
Two Brothers Tavern, 86 Main Street, Middlebury, free.
UPS Store, 40 Court Street, Middlebury, $, Boingo and other providers.
Capitol Grounds, 45 State Street, Montpelier, free.
J. Morgan's Steakhouse, 100 State Street, Montpelier, $, NOWIRZ.
Kellogg-Hubbard Library, 135 Main Street, Montpelier, $, Summit.
Langdon Street Cafe, 4 Langdon Street, Montpelier, free.
McDonald's, 1332, US 302, Barre; 478 South Barre Road, $, Wayport.
Rhapsody Cafe, 28 Main Street, Montpelier, free.
Vermont Statehouse, 115 State Street, Montpelier, $, Summit.
The Flying Disk, 42 South Main Street, St. Albans, free.
Bee's Knees, 82 Lower Main Street, Morrisville, free.
Full of Beans Coffee House, 1 South Main Street, Waterbury, $, pay cash at the counter.
The Pizza Joint, 745 South Main Street, Stowe, $, pay cash at the counter.
Stowe Coffee House, 57B Mountain Road, Stowe, free.
Stowe Free Library, 90 Pond Street, Stowe, free.
McDonald's, 153 First Street, Swanton, $, Wayport.