With its top-notch connection utilities, impressive number of U.S. and international locations, and cheap monthly rates, Boingo Wireless's impeccable WISP (wireless Internet service provider) credentials are tough to beat. While we wish Boingo had hourly rates, 24/7 phone support, and across-the-board 802.1x capabilities, this worldwide WISP takes the cake with its best-of-class Windows connection client, free VPN service, and low, no-contract rates.
Boingo is a bit different from its WISP competitors in that it's a loose network comprised of dozens of different hot-spot operators. That means if you sign up for monthly service at a hot spot affiliated with the Boingo network, you're not necessarily signing up with Boingo per se, but with that operator's particular service. For that reason, we recommend buying a day pass or a monthly subscription at Boingo's Web site before hitting the road. The sign-up process is relatively straightforward; by the end, you'll have a username and a password that you can use at any Boingo-affiliated location.
Once you've set up your account, you can download and install Boingo's powerful Wi-Fi connection utility. (We performed most of our tests with the Windows version, although stripped-down Mac and Pocket PC versions are also available.) From the app's easy-to-use main interface, you can check the available Wi-Fi signals in the area; just click the oblong, green Connect button to connect to a signal (a much more intuitive process than the one offered in Windows XP). If the connection utility finds a Boingo signal, a pop-up window will let you know and offer to connect you automatically. Even better (and unique among the major WISPs we've seen), Boingo offers its own free VPN (virtual private network) service to secure your wireless activity; just select VPN under the Options menu. Unfortunately, the VPN is available only on the Windows client, and not all Boingo locations support 802.1x, which means Mac users will have to make do with their own VPNs. That said, you can configure the Boingo client to work with office or home access points, including those using WEP, WPA, or 802.1x protection. Want to find other Boingo locations? The app's location directory lets you find other hot spots even when you're offline (updates to the directory are downloaded in the background); click on a location for a street address, a map, and even a snapshot, if one is available. A signal-performance chart graphs your signal strength in real time, and a log tracks your connection history.
Boingo has one of the most extensive hot-spot networks we've seen, with more than 7,000 access points in the United States and about 13,000 internationally in more than 40 countries. International Wi-Fi jet-setters can also connect in the air courtesy of Connexion by Boeing (at $29 per flight, with carriers such as Asiana Airlines, China Airlines, El Al, JAL, Korean Air, Lufthansa, SAS, and Singapore Airlines).
Boingo aso offers some of the most reasonable rates we've seen: $22 a month or $10 a day for unlimited access, with no contracts required. While we like the low monthly rates, Boingo doesn't provide an option for those who just want to jump on for an hour or so; we wish it offered hourly rates as well.
Boingo falters a bit when it comes to service. Phone support is toll-free but available only Monday through Friday from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m PT. Those hours aren't bad, but they pale in comparison with the 24/7 phone support offered by T-Mobile HotSpot and Toshiba MyConnect.