WiFinder Helps Uncover Those Hidden Access Points

So you’ve got your eye on that Xircom SpringPort module, the one that should bring 11 Mbps wireless Internet access to your Handspring. It sounds great. It’s small, portable and fast. And just as you start to think of all the places where you could be using it, you begin to wonder. Exactly, where are those coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and airport lounges that are supposed to have 802.11b access points?

Few locations are publicizing that they offer the service just yet.WiFinder should give you a clue. It’s a searchable directory of public 802.11b access points.

In our test, WiFinder demonstrated a surprisingly robust collection. Using the site’s search feature, we were able to learn that access was available in locations where we had just visited without seeing a trace of any public network. If you’re near a big city in the U.S., chances are WiFinder will educate you about a coffee shop, airport terminal or hotel lobby you’ve visited where the service is offered, even if the people staffing the location don’t know WiFi from hifi.

Today, WiFinder is the leader in finding these less than obvious locations. But in this early adopter period, you’ll need to treat a visit to WiFinder with the same sense of adventure you’ll have using an 802.11b network in public.

The database is being compiled through public submissions and so standards are fairly loose. Searching for a particular location may take several tries.

The site’s interface is clean and easy to understand. You can search by name of the facility, area code or any part of a street address. Searches by state work well if there are few access points in the state. For example, it is easy to scan the three pages returned for Ohio or two pages returned for Illinois. But the process of searching is overwhelming for states that have a high concentration of access points. A search on the state of California returned 36 pages, each one listing eight locations.

If the location has been entered using a U.S. 9-digit zip code and you search using a 5-digit code, WiFinder won’t find it. Or, if you try to use a street name, and don’t spell it exactly the same as the database entry, there’s no match. For example, the popular Four Seasons Hotel in listed on one of the 15 pages that is returned for a NY state search. But if you try searching using the “street” field, you’ll have to guess how it was entered (we found it using “E 57th St” but not if we entered “E 57 St” or any other common variation on the street spelling).

Finding airport lounges is more difficult than it needs to be. Search on “JFK” in New York State, and you’ll quickly find two locations in that airport. Search on “Logan” in Massachusetts and you’ll miss the two Logan airport lounges in the database (that’s because the location record includes Logan in the address line not in the Location name). On the positive side, when you do find an entry within an airport, it is likely to be quite descriptive, including the name of the lounge and clues on where to find it (“Above Ticket Counter D,” for example).

Right now, these problems are minor. The number of access points in the U.S. is still small enough that you will be able to find the locations you need in WiFinder without too much trouble. And once you see that most of the listings in the larger states are for Starbucks, you can devise your own search strategy for working around the many pages listed alphabetically for “S.”

But as 802.11b goes international and the number of access points grows, WiFinder will need to move rapidly to keep up with the market.

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