WiFi Access

Mar 16, 2004
New Zealand
Coming to the US from NZ in May to chase - I have a Dell laptop with WiFi 811.g card, running XP - what do I need to get Internet access in the States? Can anyone recommend a provider, and what other software might I need in the States to get WiFi access? Thanks, Peter
Going with one provider is kind of risky here. The system is very fragmented, and with just a wifi card you are limited to small range networks.

There are several pay as you go deals, like in Starbucks or certain Truckstops. You can by an hourly pass, a day pass, etc.

The easiest way to use your wifi is to just use open networks. They are everywhere in the US, as not too many people know how to secure theirs. The closer you are to people the more likely you are to find an open network.
In addition to what Bill just said, I'd consider getting and configuring an external (USB) wifi antenna adapter with a pointable antenna to improve your range and having NetStumbler downloaded and available for any freenet war-driving you may do. Also, I'd suggest bringing along an EtherNet cable for any hard-wired connections you run into, such as some motels and truckstops.
I have this one on my wish list. I saw them first on Ebay, but I can't seem to find them on there now:


The orinico gold card is almost a standard among war drivers. I had one last year, but the weak point was the antenna connection to the card. With this one, they have modified that to a much more fortified connection.
I thought I’d post this for those using wifi this year. My new laptop has built in wifi and an internal antenna. I have been using netstumbler to locate AP’s and then connecting with Windows XP. I have used this successfully since Feb., but mostly in populated areas, Omaha, Des Moines, Denver, and Minneapolis. The big question though, was how was this setup going to work in rural areas on the plains? Well I have made two trips now ( S cental and SE Nebraska) since last week and would have to say that this setup seems to work pretty well. I have found that along the interstates and major highways there is an AP at almost every exit. This works well as you can get fuel, food, and data in one stop. I have also found AP’s in every town I passed through that had a population of ~1200 or more. Towns with less than 1000 residents generally had no AP’s. One thing that I found very interesting was that some towns were virtually wide open, whereas others were locked up pretty tight. I can only assume that the “locked up†towns all had the same knowledgeable guy (or gal) installing the wifi systems. But for the most part I was very pleased. I was able to locate an AP usually in less that a couple of minutes retrieve data and be on my way. It won’t compare to an xm system, but it does provide better data than I’ve had in the past. I think with an external usb antenna (must add this to my wish list) things could only get better. One last thing, in the smaller towns I had better luck locating an AP in the residential area’s more than the business districts.
Some "dumb questions" from me - I assume that you're piggy backing on someone else's Internet connection where they've left there WiFi access open. I have Windows XP with an internal WiFi card and antenna - is it simply a matter of using Netstumbler to locate these "open" APs, then opening up Internet Explorer to get to weather data at the various sites? or are there other log on procedures to get through? I'm a "naive" AP searcher in the US since I'm only coming up to the States for the 1st time with my laptop. By using these "open" APs, am I contravening any US laws? can my access be traced?

The instructions that apply for CafeNet connections using XP in NZ for example, http://www.cafenet.co.nz/ apply to connections everywhere I'm quite sure. From googling "wifi New Zealand" it looks like you should be able to practice your connecting skills before your trip.

It's not illegal that I'm aware of to access the public internet using someone's open AP unless you're on private property, in which case the usual law of trespass would apply, in much the same way as taking photos in a shopping mall for example (you have to be informed and leave if asked). There's no clear way to distinguish a deliberately open AP from an inadvertant one, and it's certainly not illegal for a person or business to offer an open connection. An increasing number are doing so to attract business. I was in the Albuquerque, NM, airport terminal a few weeks ago, and there was free wifi there.

NetStumbler isn't necessary with XP, but it's handy to have available in case you have to sort out multiple SSIDs, flaky connections, etc.

Note: I'm not a lawyer so take it FWIW.
This year for WiFi access I am using a Fab-Corp 5 dBi omni-directional antenna and a "cookie cantenna" that I am currently building. I will use the omni to locate AP's and the "cookie cantenna", a directional antenna, to hone in on the signal. I am yet to use the "cookie cantenna" but I understand it to be a great, inexpensive antenna, rated at 18 dBi.

Below is a link to a how-to article on how to build the "cookie cantenna".

I've done a lot of research on WiFi communications recently and thought I'd share some of my findings.

First off.. the Orinoco cards are not all they are talked up to be. It's the war-driving favorite simply because it's very well marketed and it allows for an external antenna. Beyond those reasons, it's not a great card at all.

What one really needs to do is look at the specifications of your PCMCIA card you plan on purchasing. Don't settle for anything less than a 200mW output power (23 dBm) with at least a -89 dBm receive sensitivity. The larger the output power (higher positive numbers) and larger negative receive sensitivity the better. For example 24.3 dBm (300mW) and -91 dBm sensitivity would be better yet.

Also, make sure your card has external antenna jacks, and then get yourself the highest gain antenna you can find. Depending on the manufacturer, the gain published may not be entirely true, but there really isn't any way to find out for sure until you try it.

Directional Yagi antennas tend to have the best focused power, however you have to hold and point it, which can be annoying I think. I prefer to just go with a mag mount omni directional antenna. The highest gain I could find was a 8.5 dBi.

With the setup I have, I compared my rig with a friend who purchased a "Long Range" card from Netgate.com with a 5 dBi rubber duckie antenna, which was suppose to be this outstanding combo. He picked up 17 networks while I picked up 80 while sitting in the same vehicle.

Do the research if you want the best equipment.

On the other hand, WiFi signals don't travel very far, and the farthest range you can possibly expect reliably is maybe half a mile. But those few extra hundred or thousand feet may mean the difference between pulling up next to the Holiday Inn to get data and sitting across the street at a gas station while your chase partner saves some time and connects while you're filling gas.

Regarding the legality of the subject... it's my impression that by FCC regulations, you are illegally accessing someone's wifi connection unless they have given you expressed permission to use it.

Just because someone didn't secure their network doesn't necessarily mean that it's ok to use it.
Have done some more reading and don't want to turn this into another discussion of the legality, morality, and ethics of piggybacking onto someone's 802.11 AP. Those discussions are floating all over the web, etc.

I think the bottom line is that Peter or anyone else stands just about no chance of getting into any legal trouble in the States for pulling up an open AP to get weather data and such. Photography of any kind is far riskier nowadays. IMHO, FWIW.

Andrew, or anyone... do you have any experience yet with the small, dash-placeable external adapters with a pointable antenna that give you better signal targeting and a few db gain? These are I think a more practical alternative for someone traveling to the States than a cantenna, Yagi, etc.