The Tao of Low-Cost Wireless


Q: Now that spring’s finally here, I’d love to start surfing the Web outdoors. I hear that wireless networks are making headway, but my finances are kind of tight. Any chance I can go wireless on the cheap?

You’re in luck — shallow pockets won’t prevent you from indulging your wireless jones. A crusty old laptop and $50 will get you started, though you’ll have to bargain-hunt a bit. But once the hardware’s in place, your wallet never need open again. Wireless Internet access can be had for less than peanuts, provided you know where to hang.

The technology that makes wireless-on-a-budget possible is Wi-Fi, shorthand for “wireless fidelity.” A Wi-Fi router plugs into a wired network and broadcasts the data over low-frequency radio signals. Laptops outfitted with Wi-Fi antennas can receive these signals, and volley back their own, as long as they’re a stone’s throw from the base station — 150 feet is the normal max, though more muscular routers can sextuple the range. The speeds aren’t mind-blowing, but at 11 megabits per second, Wi-Fi trounces dial-up connections, not to mention those tortoise-paced Web browsers on cell phones.

Wi-Fi was designed to ease life amid the cubicles, so workers wouldn’t have to crawl beneath their desks and fuss with tangled cables every time they jacked a laptop into the company server. But as the price of Wi-Fi equipment tumbled, civic-minded geeks realized they could build gratis wireless networks for public spaces — parks, pubs, coffee shops.

So how can you start capitalizing on their generosity? If you’ve purchased a laptop over the past six months or so, you’re probably ready to go — most new models come with Wi-Fi antennas, usually identified in the user’s guide by the official esoteric moniker “802.11b.” Don’t fret if you’re still lugging around a 10-pound dinosaur from the pre-Lewinsky Era, though. If you’ve got a PC card slot, you can purchase a Wi-Fi adapter for a pittance. The palm-sized cards retail for about $100 at your local computer megastore, but the real deals are on eBay. You can pick up a prime wireless card for $50 or less; just type “Wi-Fi” or “802.11b” into the site’s search engine and comb through the auctions. A company named ORiNOCO makes reliable cards, and so does Cisco.

Once you’ve got the adapter installed — a simple push-until-it-clicks affair — it’s time to start looking for a suitable Wi-Fi spot. In New York, turn to NYCwireless, a community networking project whose site lists more than 95 nodes in the metro area. Over a third are in Manhattan, with thick clusters on the Upper West Side and below 14th Street. Tompkins Square Park is a good bet, as is the northern half of Madison Square Park (the southern half should be covered soon). Routers point toward several cafés near Cornelia and Bleecker streets, too, should you enjoy downing Michelobs while checking your Hotmail. The NYCwireless site offers links to directories from other tech-happy cities, such as Houston and Vancouver. Check out Portland’s Personal Telco Project, a godsend for anyone who dreams of finding free Wi-Fi in Toowoomba, Australia.

You can also try covertly piggybacking onto a corporate connection. A shareware program called NetStumbler scans for Wi-Fi nodes; if a boneheaded company forgot to flip on the security measures, you can hop on its network to your heart’s content. NetStumbler lists about 15,000 nodes nationwide, and about 85 percent are unsecured. Caveat surfer: Corporate America is not exactly renowned for being a good sport with interlopers.

That ill-humor, unfortunately, could pose a problem for community networks. Many nodemasters violate their service agreements by sharing bandwidth with passers-by. If behemoths like AOL Time Warner ever crack down on these scofflaws, it would be a blow to the free Wi-Fi’ers — and a boon to pay-for access entrepreneurs. Last fall, for example, Starbucks began installing Wi-Fi in hundreds of big-city stores. Patrons can now surf while sipping their caramel macchiatos, provided they can pony up the 20-cents-per-minute fee. Not cheap and, hopefully, not a harbinger of things to come.