Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tech Note: Warwalking with WiFiFoFum

To connect to the Internet with a handheld computer like mine, you have two basic options when you're on the road.

1. Connecting via your cell phone operator, using GPRS. This connection is available almost everywhere in urban areas, but it's not very fast and it costs money per transmitted megabyte.

2. Connecting over short-range wireless computer networks, wifi. This is fast, often free but not available everywhere.

Wifi access points have such short transmission range that you may find no connection at all on one side of your house, but several ones on the other side. Access points are often open for anyone to use, particularly the ones people set up in their homes. Apparently, they can't conceive that radio waves might actually penetrate their wallpaper. This means that in a city, you generally only have to walk a few blocks to find an open connection. Such use of other people's bandwidth is ethically iffy, but many feel that as long as you make no attempt to break into the owner's computer, but only use their Internet connection temporarily, this is acceptable behaviour and doesn't hurt anyone.

Searching for wifi access points by car is called wardriving. But when all you want to do is check your e-mail and read a few blogs on the road, warwalking is what you have to do. Residential areas and back streets are good: railway stations and hotels are generally swamped with wifi you have to pay for.

To warwalk, you need good software. The wifi scanner built into Windows Mobile 5.0 on the Qtek 9100 handheld is primitive and buried way down in the menu hierarchy. It's no good for warwalking. Neither Netstumbler not Ministumbler will currently run on the Qtek. But WiFiFoFum from Aspecto Software does, it runs well, and it's freeware. With WiFiFoFum, you can warwalk without even looking at your handheld. It'll go MEEP when it finds an access point. Version 2.0 has just been released. For the next version, I'd like to be able to set conditions for the alert, for instance "go MEEP only when you find an open access point with good reception".

But the Qtek 9100 has a glitch in its core software that isn't Aspecto's fault. It has no trouble finding wifi access points, but it's unable to forget about them when they drop out of range. This morning I warcycled a bit in a housing area, and pretty soon the WiFiFoFum display was cluttered to illegibility with ghost networks. To get rid of them I had to periodically re-start the machine. So I can't do real warwalking with this machine: I'll have to stop at a likely spot, run WiFiFoFum, walk a few blocks, re-start the machine, run WiFiFoFum, and repeat this until I get connected.

Ten years from now, this will be cause for nostalgia.

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