The Way of the Wi-Fi Warrior
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Oct 23 09:30:00 GMT 2003

While traveling around the South Pacific for the last four months, I've had one hell of a hard time logging onto public Wi-Fi networks (see my journal entry). I tried blaming my software, my hardware, and the networks for my failure to communicate. It didn't help. Now I know the real problem: I'm a fool.

But I'm learning. I've been talking to people who spend a good part of their lives in airports, hotels, and convention centers. These wily wanderers know how to get online almost anywhere. They have a bag of tricks, both hard and soft, to help them find and use urban hotspots. While most of these methods are completely above board, some of these tricks are unethical if not downright illegal. Real Wi-Fi warriors, of course, use their powers for good, not evil.

One day, it'll be easy for mere mortals to open their laptops and log onto the wireless Internet without a lot of head scratching, application installing, and keyboard tapping. Until then, the Wi-Fi warriors will rule the airwaves. Here are the tools of their trade.

Stumble and Ye Shall Find

Until recently, whenever I wanted to see if I was in range of a wireless access point, I would open my iBook and click on the Airport icon. If nothing happened, I'd move around the room or down the street and click again. And again and again. It's a damn inconvenient way to search for hotspots. Wi-Fi warriors don't waste their time. They use "stumbler" software, such as NetStumbler or MacStumbler to quickly and clicklessly find out which networks are available, along with other information, such as whether or not a particular network is password protected or not. You don't even have to look at the screen to see if the stumbler has found a network -- all you have to do is listen for that happy "ping" sound.

"Wherever I go, I whip out my computer and run MacStumbler or iStumbler," says Glenn Fleishman, editor of Wi-Fi Networking News and senior editor at Jiwire.

The real power of a stumbler comes into play when it's combined with a Global Positioning System device. The practice of "wardriving" involves driving around an urban area with GPS-equipped laptop that's running stumbler software. As the stumbler comes across networks, it matches them with the GPS system and logs them onto a digital map, which can be published on a Website such as Wi-Fi Maps for all to share. More eco-friendly "warwalkers" will stroll through neighborhoods with a WiFi-enabled PDA.

Why Sniffing Sometimes Stinks

Besides stumblers, there are sniffers, used to monitor activity on wireless networks. A sniffer is a good way to help you understand how your own wireless network works. The trouble comes when they're used to crack the password needed to access a closed wireless network. Most Wi-Fi Warriors look at the use of such sniffers with disgust. The kind of person who'd crack a hotspot password is the same kind who'd drink all the vodka bottles in a hotel minibar and refill them with water to avoid paying for them. My friend Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and Wi-Fi warrior who logs more air miles than a commercial pilot, says WEP encryption should be thought of as a "do not enter" sign. Glenn concurs: "I don't play any games. I have KisMAC installed, but I've only run it as a matter of interest, not for cracking."

Stumbling the Hard(ware) Way

The truly dedicated Wi-Fi warrior never leaves home without a Wi-Fi detection device. About the size of a pack of cards, and costing around $30, these handheld gadgets scan the airwaves for radio activity in the Wi-Fi frequency range.

SmartID's WFS-1 Wi-Fi Detector is a black plastic box the size of a deck of cards. In the presence of a Wi-Fi network, the LEDs on the face of the device light up. Cory recently bought a SmartID device and has been putting it to work in his travels around the planet. While's he's not a fan of the gadget's esthetics ("it looks like it was designed by Atari."), he's fairly impressed by its performance. One drawback is its inability to differentiate between open and closed networks. Microwave ovens and cordless phones can also confuse it.

I asked Glenn what his dream Wi-Fi detector would be. He'd like a display that showed network names and other details, and a USB port to download the info onto his laptop. He'd also like it to have two antennas used for diversity and directionality. "Basically, I'd fire the thing up and it would light up green LEDs to point to the strongest signal. I could select which signal to monitor with the arrow buttons and a clicker."

Hey, if I get one of these, can I be a Wi-Fi warrior too?