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Get Fast, Free Smartphone Phone Internet Access With Wi-Fi

By Joseph Moran

When it comes time to buy a mobile phone, many people opt for the PDA-like features of a smartphone over a standard model. Smartphones become even more useful when paired with a mobile data plan that provides Internet access over a cellular carrier's network.

The catch is that mobile data plans can cost a bundle, especially when you get one that offers unlimited access. And while you can often sign up for less expensive data plans, most of them severely restrict how long you can use a connection or how much data you can transfer with it.

But these days lots of smartphones are Wi-Fi capable, and if you've got such a device you may have an alternative to the cost and/or limitations of a mobile data plan. Here we'll show how to connect to a WLAN with Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones using the Windows Mobile 5/6 operating systems. Because menu options vary slightly by hardware model and OS flavor, we can't give you an exact procedure that will work on every device, but the following general steps should help you get a wireless connection up and running on most Wi-Fi-equipped Windows Mobile devices.

Set Up Your Device

The first step to activating Wi-Fi on a Windows Mobile device is to locate and launch the Comm Manager utility, which you'll typically find right off the Start Menu (on some devices it might be under the Programs sub-menu). When Comm Manager opens, you'll see a group of icons representing the various connection types your phone is capable of.

The Wi-Fi icon—which may or may not be labeled— is the one that looks like an antenna. It will likely contain an "X" and be grayed out. (If you don't see it, your device lacks Wi-Fi support.) Highlight and select the Wi-Fi icon, either by tapping it or pressing its corresponding number button if there is one. This will activate Wi-Fi on your device, and within a few seconds the phone should detect and offer to connect you to any nearby wireless networks.

What's That Term?

Not sure what a particular networking term means? Check out our searchable glossary.

Select the network you want to use and proceed through the wizard to specify the encryption type and key, if any. (When asked to specify what the network will connect to, choose "The Internet".) You'll know you're connected via Wi-Fi when you see the Wi-Fi icon— an antenna surrounded by a solid halo, or something similar— at the top of the Windows Mobile "home" screen.

In most cases your phone should automatically use Wi-Fi for its data connection whenever one is available. There are exceptions. For example, while you can browse the Web and do e-mail over Wi-Fi, you'll need the carrier's network for certain things, like sending and receiving MMS messages. If you have multiple connection types available, the phone should use the most appropriate one.

Things to Remember

A couple of things to keep in mind when using phone-based Wi-Fi:

If you have one of the earliest Wi-Fi equipped phones, it may support 802.11b but not the more recent 802.11g. If so, you'll only be able to connect to those 802.11g networks that have been configured for mixed g/b access.

Heavy use of Wi-Fi will significantly shorten battery life on many smartphones. Remember to turn off Wi-Fi via Comm Manager when you're not using it, or the phone will always be seeking out nearby WLANs, which will prematurely drain your battery. Another battery-extending technique is to configure your phone to automatically deactivate Wi-Fi if a connection goes idle within a specified amount of time, (like after 30 seconds or a minute).

Granted, getting Internet access via Wi-Fi isn't as convenient as getting it through the more ubiquitous cellular network. But if you frequently find yourself at free hotspots, or with access to the WLANs of clients, friends, etc., a Wi-Fi connection can possibly save you the considerable monthly cost of a data plan. And even if you aren't ready to forgo a data plan, you may still sometimes want to use a Wi-Fi connection as they're are often faster than those made through the cellular network. Cellular data connections usually max out around 100K per second, whereas Wi-Fi will typically give you many times that speed.

Incidentally, Wi-Fi isn't exclusive to Windows Mobile smartphones. If you've got a Symbian S60-based smartphone—mainly Nokia models— it may be Wi-Fi-equipped as well; as are some BlackBerry models. Sorry Palm Treo users— you're out of luck because your devices don't include built-in Wi-Fi support (though you can sometimes add it via an SD card).

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, don't forget to try one of our PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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