Call it digital Murphy's Law: Minutes before an assignment was due, my home-office power went kaput, knocking out my cable Net access. I jumped in my car and frantically zipped around to every cafe and hotel in the neighborhood, looking for a WiFi hot spot -- a wireless Ethernet network -- so I could get back online without the need for a phone jack, modem or cords. Alas, there was no free lunch; I wasn't a subscriber to the WiFi services at my local haunts. This crippling technical meltdown made me vow to upgrade my infrastructure. Forget WiFi, I thought -- I needed to become my own hot spot.
It turns out you can make your trusty mobile phone into the equivalent of a WiFi connection: All you need is a phone that comes with data service and Bluetooth (which connects your phone to a laptop or PDA without fussy cables). Then, wherever you have cellular coverage, you can "dial up" to the Net through your phone, giving you a wireless hot spot in almost every corner of the country -- not just where coffee or airplane tickets are sold. Here's how to get set up:
CUT THE CORDS. For you to truly get that wireless feel, your cell phone and computer or PDA should both support Bluetooth, so you won't have to physically connect your Internet device to your phone. If you've got an old-school machine and don't want to splurge on a new one, for about $80 you can buy a Bluetooth USB adapter for your existing laptop or handheld. You can also get an adapter for about $40 for your existing mobile phone, although those tend to be a bit bulky, aren't always available for certain phones, and add another have-to-drag-around component to your life. A better choice: Pick up a flashy new Bluetooth-enabled phone for $100 to $300 (your wireless provider or online shops will have tons of deals; as a bonus, a newer phone will also let you snap photos or even listen to MP3s). Check out www.bluetooth.com for a current list of Bluetooth phones and other devices (headsets, handhelds, printers and more).
CHOOSE A PLAN. To become a hot spot, your mobile phone must include data service. Providers including T-Mobile, Vodafone, AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Cingular offer these services for rates from $19.99 per month for a 5MB data cap to $79.99 a month for unlimited access. (Enter your Zip code into the companies' Web sites to see which services are available locally or in the areas where you travel frequently.) Be sure to choose the data plan that best suits your needs: Shooting off a few e-mails, for example, requires less bandwidth than downloading shopping carts full of digital tunes. Some services also allow you to talk on your mobile phone and use it as a hot spot at the same time -- the ultimate telecommuting tango -- or put your data connection on hold to receive incoming calls. Ask your provider how to customize this feature so you don't miss an important business call while using your hot spot for a little online matchmaking or bargain hunting.
'PAIR' UP. Bluetooth-enabled devices are connected through "pairing" -- a process not unlike selecting a printer for your computer. When you start up Bluetooth on your notebook or PDA (the icon can be found in your system tray, the start menu or the control panel), it looks for other Bluetooth devices to hook up with. Then you're prompted to create an identical PIN for both devices (only once -- you don't have to remember it) to establish a connection so they can communicate securely.
LOG ON. Now your mobile phone is like any other modem in your midst -- but without the need to jack in. Depending on the network, you can get online at speeds from 56 kbps to as high as 320 kbps. Keep in mind that Bluetooth can only encrypt communications between paired devices, so once you've used your hot spot to get on the open Net, it's up to your Web browser or e-mail server settings to keep your online activity secure. Keep your cell phone in your pocket, handbag or briefcase when you're on the road and you'll be online in a jiffy. Soon, you'll have your neighbor on the train asking, "Is that a hot spot in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"