Help me solve a wifi mystery
January 12, 2012 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Help me solve a wifi mystery. A paid wifi hotspot near where I am staying is intermittently providing me with free access to the 'net. I would like to try to understand why this is happening so that I can (hopefully) replicate it at will from my devices.

Background: I am staying with family at present and they unfortunately have no wifi. However, there is a strong signal from a nearby paid AP. I connected to the AP from my iPhone on the night I arrived hoping to download some emails (my data is off, as I am roaming from outside the US). A login screen popped up. I poked around and determined that this was a paid service, with daily and monthly rates. After contemplating buying a day pass, I locked my iPhone and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up to find 30 new emails had downloaded while I slept. Since then, I have unlocked my phone at various times to find it connected to the 'net (able to browse the web, send/download emails, use apps, etc.) without logging in. After a while, the AP disconnects and/or pops a login screen up again, ending my free browsing session until some point in the future. I have also replicated this behavior on my iPad, but not yet on my Mac.

Basically, I curious as to what might be at work here. If there is anything I can do to control the behavior, all the better!
posted by clark to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The captive portal for the hotpsot is probably letting the iOS devices sneak in because they can't figure out how to charge the devices like that can with other devices like a computer. Depending on the wifi company it might offer the service for free to iOS devices as some sort of promotion. For example, ATT used to let iPhone customers use their paid wifi hotspots for a few hours a day after the iPhone launched before eventually letting everyone use the service for free. Whether or not using the service without paying for it is considered theft of service in where you you are is up to the laws of that jurisdiction (and the microscopic chance of you actually getting caught).

The thingy probably puts a session cookie down that challenges you for a password again after a few hours which is why you'll get logged out.
posted by birdherder at 9:58 PM on January 12, 2012

Happens on my iPad with frequency. No idea why. You are not alone.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:58 PM on January 12, 2012

my data is off, as I am roaming from outside the US

You've triple-checked that, right?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:37 PM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The router / gateway challenge is (probably) set to respond to *browser* requests - So, if you open a browser and ask for, you will get a 'login' response page; however your email is not trying to view a webpage but connecting direct to a server, so it will function as the router doesn't have a set of instructions on how to deal with this - shoddy network setup essentially.

You can find similar circumstances around wifi cafes etc. as usually they are A) Not run by 'SysAdmins' and are B) Using basic-off-the-shelf 'home-use' routers to serve as business tools.

This is more prevalent with old setups rather than new, due to ease-of-use hardware and instructions becoming clearer and not requiring a degree in withcraft to get things to work...

Caveats to this are that depending on the 'lease' offered by the 'router' to the device, you may have to allow it to expire after a session in order to be given a 'new' lease; this might be a factor in any 'sporadic' use issues you face, but I'm already past the boundaries of my knowledge as it is... not an all-together uncommon set of circumstances, to be fair. :)

Something else of note is that Apple devices are a different beast entirely to Windows boxes with regard to networking settings - I posted this MF Question a while ago and it is as true today as it was then.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:52 AM on January 13, 2012

Could there be a wifi ssid with the same name as the AP, or maybe something like "Linksys", which you might use at home or elsewhere, and your phone remembers - and your phone is connecting to that whenever someone turns on their router?
posted by backwards guitar at 5:32 AM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer, not legal advice, etc., but you really, really don't want to be caught making unauthorized use of a computer network. As I understand it, there's a legal gray area when you make use of a someone's unsecured "linksys" WiFi, because they are essentially inviting you in. However, if it's a commercial AP and you are explicitly trying to jimmy it so it always gives you free WiFi and you don't have to pay, well, that would seem to cross the line. I don't know what state you're in, but in California anyone who "knowingly and without permission accesses or causes to be
accessed any
computer, computer system, or computer network" is looking at up to a few years in jail and a $10K fine. Is it a stupid, overbroad law with wildly disproportionate penalties? Yes. Has it been enforced? Also yes. See this Wikipedia article and decide if you still want to be delving into this "mystery" on a public forum.
posted by wnissen at 8:35 AM on January 13, 2012

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