Hunting for Hotspots

By Joseph Moran | Posted August 01, 2007

When you're out and about and you need Internet access, stumbling across an open, e.g., unsecured, Wi-Fi network can feel like finding $10 on the sidewalk. The truth is that unless you're standing in the middle of a cornfield, there's probably one or more open network nearby, but the challenge is in knowing exactly where to find them.

That's where We-Fi comes in, a utility that aims to harness the power of the mobile masses to help identify and map open wireless networks for the benefit of all. As a means to help roving users find wireless access, We-Fi occupies the same broad market segment as FON and Whisher, but there are some key differences. Rather than letting members offer access to each other's networks (which FON does through hardware and Whisher through software), We-Fi basically allows users to spread the word about any open—that is to say, free—networks they happen to come across. 

Making Connections
We-Fi is currently in beta and for the moment is only available for Windows XP (a Vista-compatible version is under development, as is one for the Mac). When you fire up the software it takes over as your wireless connection utility, looks for any available free networks in the area, and connects you to the strongest one. This is We-Fi's default “Auto Wi-Fi” mode, in which it will also periodically take the liberty of moving you to a different network if it detects one with a better signal. It does this without telling you (but you can configure the program to provide notification) but by default it won't switch networks on you while you're streaming media.

We-Fi also gives you a Manual Connect button that will allow you to connect to a specific network and keep you connected to it. In addition to open networks, you can also use We-Fi to connect to secure ones (encrypted with either WEP or WPA-PSK), provided that you know the appropriate key or passphrase. We-Fi doesn't let you register your access points as such, and so, unlike Whisher's software, it doesn't distribute the encryption keys that allow users to access each other's secure networks.

We-Fi also doesn't act as a permanent replacement for your Wi-Fi connection software. When you aren't looking for free Wi-Fi you can shut down We-Fi and be returned to your regularly scheduled wireless program, be that Windows Wireless Zero Config (WZC) or a hardware-specific connection utility. That's good, because we weren't able to access local network resources like shared printers and folders while running We-Fi. (The company says it's aware of the problem and is working on a fix.)

Finding and Mapping Networks
We-Fi maintains an online database of free networks and relies on its registered customers to keep it up-to-date and growing (as of this writing, the service was claiming over 33,000 hotspots mapped). We-Fi asks its customers to map any networks they find by providing a street address or approximate geographic location and marking it with We-Fi's Google Maps application so that others can find them too. You can search for networks using a full or partial address, or even just a ZIP code.

Once a network has been mapped it gets a Spotpage Web site, which at the moment offers little more than the names of recently and currently connected customers and props for the We-Fi customer that found and mapped the network. We-Fi's future plans for Spotpages include the ability for owners to customize and publish information on their network's Spotpage. (We-Fi encourages users to map their own wireless networks, provided they're open).

Social Networking
Aside from helping people locate free Wi-Fi, We-Fi also has a social networking aspect and aspires to help people connect to each other as well as to the Net. When you sign up with We-Fi, you can provide minimal information and opt to appear as an anonymous user while online, but you also have the ability to put lots of personal data into your user profile. Twitter customers can automatically send out word of their location whenever they connect through We-Fi, and while the software lets you publish various forms of contact info (like e-mail, IM, Skype, etc.) it doesn't yet provide an integrated method of communication such as Whisher's built-in IM client. Text chat capability is planned for the future, however.

We-Fi is an intriguing product that delivers on its main promise of helping people find free Wi-Fi. On the other hand, we do have some trepidation about it, considering the chaotic state of laws governing wireless network access. In some areas, accessing a wireless network—even an open one—without permission is against the law, and some cases have been prosecuted. We could also do without the social networking aspects of We-Fi—they seem superfluous—but there's no question that We-Fi can be a handy way to find free wireless Internet while on the road.

Price: Free
Pros: Lets you find and share locations of open wireless networks
Cons: Only Windows XP (for now); doesn't allow automatic access to encrypted networks

Adapted from wi-fiplanet.com.

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