Pros: Provides access to other members’ Wi-Fi networks; works with any WLAN infrastructure hardware.
Cons: User must upload network’s encryption key to Whisher for use by other users; member hotspots currently few and far between.
Stand on a random street corner in most neighborhoods, and you’ll probably be bathing in signals from many nearby Wi-Fi networks. But when it comes to finding wireless Internet access, that may not do you a lot of good. Compared to the number of existing Wi-Fi networks, the number that are publicly available (free or not) is relatively small.
Barcelona, Spain-based Whisher Technologies is hoping its software will help make public Wi-Fi access easier to come by. The eponymous software, which is currently in beta, is designed to foster a community of Wi-Fi sharing users, enabling them to easily provide each other with access to their respective networks. Notably, it doesn’t matter what type of Wi-Fi hardware you have (another Spanish firm, FON, has a similar product that requires the use of a special or modified router; recently-launched WeFi has some similar attributes, with an emphasis on mapping free access points, whether they’re run by members or not).
Anyone can get their hands on the free Whisher software, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. The application replaces your system’s wireless client, so after installation, it will take over the function of Windows Wireless Zero Config (WZC) or whatever manufacturer-specific WLAN utility you may be using.
Accessing Whisher Networks
Before you can access a Whisher hotspot (or set up your own), you must create an account. This requires an e-mail address at minimum, though you have the option to include additional personal data in your account profile. After you’ve logged into your account, the software downloads a database of Whisher hotspots onto your system. Although it’s encouraged, you are not required to share your own wireless network in order to access those of other Whisher members.
When you view available wireless networks through the Whisher software, those that are Whisher-compatible are marked with a red “W” logo. Since data about Whisher hotspots — including encryption keys — is contained within the software’s database, when you select a Whisher hotspot to join, the software automatically passes the appropriate credentials, allowing you to connect without having to enter or even know the encryption key. In fact, Whisher users aren’t made aware of the keys for networks they join, which prevents them from passing them along to non-users. Storing the encryption keys of countless networks within the Whisher software does raise some potential security concerns, but the company claims the risk is minimized by storing the keys with a strong encryption algorithm that’s different on every Whisher client.
Before joining a Whisher hotspot, the software will show you both the current and average signal strengths, and will also provide an indication of the network’s past availability, which can help you decide which network is likely to provide the most reliable connection. (Once connected, users can also give networks a “peer rating” of up to five stars.) To help you find Whisher networks in a given area, the software can plot them via Google Maps, and allows you to search by country, city or ZIP code.
I couldn’t find any Whisher networks in South Florida (the software’s only been available for a few months, and relatively few exist even around major metro areas), so I set up my own — more on that in a moment. Given Whisher’s beta status, the software performed acceptably, though documentation is quite sparse (the company maintains an online support forum). The software did occasionally refuse to connect to my Whisher network for no apparent reason, and other times, it summarily disconnected without explanation (in that regard, it’s similar to WZC). The Whisher software also exhibited a strong tendency to crash whenever my system resumed from standby mode.
Setting Up a Whisher Hotspot
To turn your own wireless network into a Whisher hotspot, you need to register it via the client software by assigning a name to your WLAN (this doesn’t necessarily have to be your SSID
As a Whisher hotspot owner, you control who gets on your network by giving it one of three access modes. The default mode is Public, which makes the network available to all Whisher users. You can also set your network to Private when you’d like to keep your connection to yourself (which kind of defeats the purpose). The third option is to allow access to only those Whisher users you’ve identified as “Buddies.”
Given how Whisher works, there can be instances where a Whisher user’s database doesn’t reflect the current status of your network. Say you changed your network to private, but a user’s out-of-date database still shows your network as public — in this scenario, access is granted. When the database gets updated and learns the network’s current status, the Whisher software will disconnect itself. It automatically updates with each Internet connection.
Aside from just providing Internet access, Whisher offers some ways for members to communicate and share information. For example, Whisher hotspot owners can select files from their computer (such as photos, music and video) that visitors (either all users, or just buddies) can download. Users connected to any Whisher hotspot can also communicate with people on their Buddy list via text chat.
Whisher says a new beta due in mid-June will add new communication features, including the ability to communicate via various IM systems — Google, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo — a la Trillian or Pidgin (formerly Gaim), and the ability to conduct Skype-like voice calls.
Whisher plans to take advantage of knowing where hotspot visitors are geographically located by providing links to local services, business establishments and other points of interest. Presumably, this will be one of the ways the company generates revenue.
A service like Whisher has a lot of potential, at the very least as a way to convert thousands of private WLAN networks into usable hotspots. It also presents an interesting method of creating a small community around a small number of access points. Whisher’s value will ultimately depend on how many people register their wireless networks; universal hardware support should help in this regard, since it represents a low barrier to entry. Whisher’s still an evolving work in progress, but it bears watching, and is worth a look for those interested in benefiting from a wireless access quid-pro-quo.