The three things you need.
You need three things to connect to that local hotspot. One you can probably buy at any computer store, the other may be out of your control, but the last might be much harder to come by.
Let me explain…
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Using that nearby hotspot
- You’ll need a Wi-Fi adapter, either built-in, an expansion card, or USB device.
- You’ll need to be within range to be able to pick up the Wi-Fi signal.
- You’ll need the permission of the hotspot owner.
- You’ll need to remember how to stay safe using an open Wi-Fi hotspot.
First, the easy part: you need a wireless network adapter. Wi-Fi adapters are pretty much standard equipment in laptops these days, but not in all desktops. Since desktops aren’t (typically) mobile, it’s assumed you’ll use a wired connection.
You can add a wireless adapter to your system in several ways.
- An expansion card – Unlike laptops, desktops are designed with several slots for expansion, and wireless adapters are available as expansion cards. In general, for a permanent installation, this is my first choice.
- A USB plug-in – Wireless adapters are also available as devices you just plug into any available USB port on your system. Many are small, convenient, and inexpensive.
- A wireless bridge – These plug into your existing ethernet port and transform it into a wireless connection. This is my least favorite approach because it’s fairly uncommon and somewhat fragile.
The bottom line: getting your desktop PC wireless-enabled isn’t difficult.
This phrase in the question concerns me: “There is a WiFi hotspot down the street…”
How far is “down the street”?
Wi-Fi hotspots are typically small. The semi-official range of Wi-Fi is about 300 feet, but even that can be impacted by whatever is between your computer and the hotspot.
My recommendation is that before you try to get your computer connected, make sure it’ll work. Borrow a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or mobile phone and see if it can connect. There’s a good chance you won’t even see a signal if “down the street” is anything more than a couple of houses over.
You might also see if different locations in your home get a signal, and if some spots get a stronger signal than others. The laptop will be much easier to carry around for that test than your desktop would be.
Assuming you have a strong enough signal to connect, then the next requirement may be the most difficult.
You should get permission from the hotspot owner.
Shop owners usually provide open Wi-Fi as a perk for their customers.
Since you’re not a customer, it might not be appropriate for you to take advantage of it. Even if you are, visiting the business and purchasing, say, a cup of coffee probably isn’t enough to warrant all-day access to their hotspot, either.
The safest thing to do is to ask. Depending on the business, their needs, and your relationship with them, it’s possible they could simply say yes.
A final caveat: if you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot that’s unsecured — meaning you can connect without providing a password — your internet traffic may be subject to sniffing. Make sure you’re taking the appropriate steps to keep yourself safe and secure.