Finding Wi-Fi Nearby

By Eric Griffith

July 15, 2003

It's not enough to just boot up the laptop and see if you can detect a wireless network anymore -- new gadgets and services are making it possible to get instant knowledge of local Wi-Fi nodes without touching the computer.

Remember the old days? When you wanted to find a public wireless network connection in your area, you sometimes had to boot up your laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) and see if it could sniff out a signal from an access point. If you're lucky, maybe you saw a sign on the door or even a warchalking symbol on the sidewalk out front. From there you'd sign in to use the hotspot (free or paid) and surf to your hearts content. But that's so 2002.

First off, anyone who uses hotspots knows about the various Web site directories that can tell you ahead of time where the hotspots can be located, among them WiFinder.com, WiFiMaps.com and our sister-site, HotSpotList.com. Just this week, the My AvantGo service for PDAs launched a channel just for called Hot Spot Locator -- the service already lists a T-Mobile Hotspot Locator channel specific to T-Mobile locations like Starbucks Coffee Shops.

But what about when you're on the road, forgot to check the directory sites and channels ahead of time? How do you find Wi-Fi access without booting up? Now you can just look at your own Wi-Fi detector.

The first commercially available is Kensignton's WiFi Finder (model 33063). This tiny unit is around 3 by 2.7-inches and less than half an inch thick. Wherever you are, pull it out, push a button, and the three green lights on the front will tell you when you're in the presence of a Wi-Fi connection. The more lights you get, the stronger the signal.

The WiFi Finder only checks the 2.4GHz band, looking for signals from 802.11b or 11g-based networks. Kensington says it filters out signals from other items using the 2.4GHz band, from Bluetooth networks to microwave ovens. The unit will cost $29.99 and should be available in a couple of weeks.

While carrying a "finder" for WLANs on your keychain might not seem too difficult, for some that's just not flashy enough. Never fear. WiFisense is in the process of creating "a wearable detecting open wireless networks." That's right, your clothing or accoutrements may soon be able to tell you automatically when you're in the presence of an open node.

WiFisense is a way off from getting out a product -- if ever -- but on its site shows the utility off in use with a shiny silver handbag. It consists of a total of 64 light emitting diodes (LEDs), which look like beads on the bag when no Wi-Fi is available. Come within range of one, however, and the LEDs shine red, again indicating signal strength with their pattern.



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