Dowsing for a Signal

Hunting for wireless connectivity, a good signal remains hard to find.

'Fess up--you've done it. We've all done it.

You've walked out of a warm building and into the driving snow to seek a stronger cell-phone signal. Or, laptop open, you've wandered the international terminal at LAX, hoping to improve the quality of your wireless connection.

I call it "dowsing for a signal." We're all mobile workers now, unplugged from the terrestrial networks that used to provide us with reliable service. (When was the last time you shouted this into your desk phone: "Hang on, I'm going into a parking garage, I may lose you"?) So we spend a lot of time hunting for wireless connectivity that's decent enough to let us be productive.

Over time, I hope, the networks we rely on will become more advanced. Perhaps soon, your cell phone will have a directional icon telling you which way to walk or drive to get closer to a tower. As high-speed networks proliferate, our computers will get better at seamlessly switching from one to another, perhaps based on which is stronger or cheaper to use--the same way our wireless calls get handed off from one tower to the next.

But back in the present, a good signal remains hard to find. One solution is a product called the WiFi Finder from Kensington Technology Group ($29.95). It looks like an anorexic garage-door opener, with its plastic exterior and lone button. Its sole purpose is to help you dowse for a signal without turning on your laptop. You press the button, and green lights indicate whether you're near a Wi-Fi access point and how powerful it is. (A red light means you're out of luck.)

I tested the WiFi Finder while walking around Boston, and it did find many networks I didn't know existed. Unfortunately, my laptop couldn't access the majority of those networks--they were either password-protected or too weak, or the WiFi Finder had gone off half-cocked. And sometimes the device couldn't home in on a signal in a place where I have always been able to connect--my bedroom, say.

The device isn't yet perfect--or even especially useful--for dowsing, but it's the only product of its kind on the market. I'd like to see the WiFi Finder provide a better indication of open versus closed networks, and of which direction you need to head to get closer to the nearest Wi-Fi access point.

For now, there are two more useful tools available. One is a high-powered Wi-Fi card for your laptop, which allows you to send and receive data over longer distances by amplifying the signal from your laptop. (High-powered cards, made by companies such as SMC and Senao/Engenius, suck more power from your battery but give you greater range. A standard card with an external antenna can also help.) The other is an online directory of Wi-Fi "hot spots." One of the best, sponsored by Intel (intel.jiwire.com), lets you search for free or fee-based Wi-Fi networks.

The only other alternative: You could try using a forked branch, and walking in ever-widening circles.

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