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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