Friday, May 24, 2013

WiFi is a necessity, not a luxury: use this app to find free WiFi

Just how important is the Internet to you?  I am not one to say, “I can’t function without the Internet!” If I were to honestly evaluate how much the Internet means to me, I would say that having Internet in the home is more important than having cable TV or a land-line phone. The Internet keeps us connected to the world in ways that grow every day. It brings us local and national news. It provides us with information that educates and informs us. But mostly, it keeps us connected to the people that matter the most to us.

A better question might be this: how often do you connect to the Internet each day? To this question I bet most of us would simply say “a lot” or “all the time”. There are two things I do most often when I first get on a computer – get on the Internet or check my email. Everything I want from a computer is on the Internet. On my cell phone I check Facebook and read the news on almost any time I have a few spare minutes. Yes, I’m the guy who will read an article or two while waiting in line at the grocery store. I also use Google Drive regularly to update documents and share them with others when I do not have access to a computer. The Internet keeps me connected in ways that traditional means cannot.

Name one person you know who is not connected to the Internet today. Who comes to mind? I can name just two – my 87 year old grandfather and my 86 year old grandmother. They are the sweetest couple who simply do not believe that they need to be on the Internet. Yet they have a son who lives in Florida; grandchildren in Boston, New York, and Busan (South Korea); and a great-granddaughter in Chicago. All of these family members are on Facebook, could be reached via email or +Skype, and can connect through Google Hangouts. My grandparents are missing out on the social interactions that the Internet provides.

Unfortunately, many homes in America still do not have an Internet connection. The website Internet World Stats says that only 78% of Americans are connected to the Internet, which places us 27th in the world.  Did you know that Niue ranks ahead of us?  I've never even heard of Niue!

But how does this relate to students? 
They have the same needs that adults do: be productive, stay connected, and to communicate with others. Students probably have a greater need to be on the Internet than we do as adults. I mean that: they NEED the Internet. Students are not the ones who decide whether or not they can have Internet access, though. Their parents make the decision to provide Internet in the home or to purchase a cell phone plan with Internet access. Our district is projected to provide every student with an iPad starting in August of 2014, but it will be the responsibility of the family to get Internet in the home. What if parents choose not to have home Internet service? Then the students will need to find it elsewhere.

We might be 27th in home Internet access worldwide, but Americans have two advantages over many other countries when it comes to WiFi: McDonalds and +Starbucks Coffee.  We have LOTS of McDonald's and Starbucks locations which offer free WiFi.  In fact, many businesses offer free WiFi.  When we rolled out our first batch of iPads to 1,500 students I created a digital map of the local businesses that offer free WiFi to help show our school board that even if our students do not have the Internet at home that they would still have many options for staying connected.  That map was small, it only covered part of our geographical borders, and it only included locations that I knew for a fact had wi-fi.  It simply was not accurate. Our five high schools serve towns with a combined population of over 200,000 which makes creating and maintaining a WiFi map very labor intensive.

Free WiFi Finder
An app called Free Wi-Fi Finder has replaced that small, outdated map.  You can search for free WiFi by entering an address into the search box or by letting it search based on your current location.  It produces a map with the location of free WiFi locations marked with green arrows.  Each location lists the name, address, and phone number of the business where WiFi can be found for free.

A 26MB download of its database will allow you to search for free WiFi even when you are not connected to the Internet. This allows students to go home where there is not Internet but use the app to find the closest free WiFi location to his house

The Free Wi-Fi Finder app claims to work in other counties, but my colleague's search for free WiFi in Jamaica, his spring break destination, yielded zero results.  The app relies on its users to enter new locations, so it looks like when he arrives he is going to have to tag the free WiFi zones for the rest of us.

Now if only I could get my grandparents on the Internet. Since they won’t be leaving the house, the Free Wi-Fi Finder app will not help them very much. It looks like I will have to buy them an Xbox One to keep them connected to the rest of the family. 

(This article is an update on an earlier one. Click here to see the original.)

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