Using WiFi in public is a lot like using a cell phone in public. There are do's and don'ts if you don't want to get stares, get mumbled about, or get yelled at. In addition to the use of digital devices, there are other aspects to behavior at WiFi hotspots worth paying attention to.
Whether you're in a coffee shop, bookstore, library, or airport lounge, the long and short of it is the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The details, nonetheless, are interesting:
- Keep it quiet. Just as people talking on a cell phone tend to talk loudly, the same applies to people Skyping or otherwise using their laptops or tablets to communicate orally. If you need to talk, go outside or to an isolated part of the space you're in, or keep it short and say you'll get back to them later.
A public WiFi hotspot isn't the best place either to show off your add-on speakers as you listen to iTunes music or a watch a YouTube video or Netflix movie. Headphones are an inexpensive solution to nip this noise problem in the bud. A noise-canceling headset not only lets you listen to what you want, it also puts a damper on ambient sounds.
- Share outlets. Laptop batteries last longer than ever, and tablet batteries can seem like they last forever, but the urge to plug in is pretty strong. Screen brightness can be better when plugged in. Or maybe you just don't want to risk running down your battery for when you need it.
Many public WiFi hotspots have limited electrical outlets for patrons to use, and those they have may be in out-of-the-way locations. This prompts some to bring long extension cords, but this may violate the location's safety policies, and it can definitely be inconsiderate to those who want to avoid tripping.
If you're not using an outlet, don't sit next to one, freeing up that spot for someone who needs it. But try to choose a location not too close to the door, not too far from the restroom, and not next to a vent that pumps out uncomfortably cold air.
If you use outlets regularly, considering including among your travel gear an inexpensive portable outlet extender, which can for instance multiply one prong from an outlet into six, enabling more people to use the same outlet. Some outlet extenders include surge suppression.
- Be courteous to the staff. Librarians aren't your personal computer support staff. If you're having problems, some may be able to help you out, but most won't know enough about the details of your particular glitch or have the time to devote to it.
The wait staff at coffee shops and restaurants, and increasingly at bookstores too, depend on your buying beverages and such for their jobs. Don't forget the tips. The implicit agreement here is they provide the WiFi to get you in and you pay for the refreshments to keep them in business.
- Avoid public meetings. Though you sometimes see them happen publicly, having a meeting or conducting a job interview are private matters. Just because the space is free doesn't mean you can freely use it as you please.
You hear anecdotal stories of interviewers asking interviewees to disclose personal information, lawyers discussing financial information with clients, and loud meetings involving multiple tables that disrupt the ambiance for everyone else in the coffee shop.
A better place for such meetings, if you don't have private office or conference space available, is a dedicated coworking space at a local business center.
- Stay security conscious. Not only can your laptop or tablet disappear in an eyeblink, so can your briefcase or purse. When you need to use the restroom, options include asking someone to keep an eye on your gear, packing it all up and setting up again when you return, and physically securing your laptop to your table with a laptop lock.
For digital security, make sure no one is looking over your shoulder if you need to type in sensitive information. Log on to the right network rather than a rogue network with a similar name set up by a crook looking to steal your information.
Finally, even with HTTPS-secured websites, it's safest to use a virtual private network (VPN) system such as Hotspot Shield (www.hotspotshield.com) if you're using public WiFi to make online purchases, conduct online banking, or engage in similar activities involving financial information.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.