Noe Valley Goes Wireless

October 25, 2002

Wi-Fi stands for "wireless fidelity" and, as you might have guessed, Wi-Fi allows you to lose all those cumbersome wires. Wi-Fi also refers to 802.11b, a low-power, short-range (approximately 300 feet) wireless technology that delivers broadband over radio waves. Technically, a Wi-Fi access point (WAP) is a specialized combination radio/antenna that interfaces with a computer network, and is the source of radio frequencies that provide wireless Internet access. A WAP essentially extends a conventional wired computer network to a wireless network. Since radio frequencies travel through the air, a WAP can provide Internet access for any Wi-Fi-enabled computer within a small area surrounding the antenna -- like, say, between a few rooms or even across the street. This makes for good "sidewalk access," which means someone sitting with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop computer in a parked car outside a home or shop might be able to use its WAP to connect to the Internet.

Over the past few years, WAPs have been popping up in cafes, homes, and businesses around Noe Valley. This makes Noe Valley, like many other San Francisco districts, a veritable "hotzone" of Wi-Fi activity. A casual site survey found about 50 WAPs in Noe Valley: some are usable, some are encrypted with a security code and therefore unusable, and some are even intended for public use. For under $200, computer users can, in a few minutes to an hour or so (depending on technical savvy), set up their own WAP for personal or public use. (More info: Wi-Fi Alliance)

As a hobby, some Wi-Fi geeks enjoy "wardriving," which is a trendy yet aggressive-sounding term for driving or walking around with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop computer, seeking and connecting to "spillover" wireless access points in the area. Whether wardriving is "stealing" someone else's Internet connectivity is debatable; for most geeks, wardriving is like checking the windows on homes or shops to see if lights are on, and using the lights to read a newspaper while standing on the sidewalk. Since this technology is so new and cutting-edge, the details of legality have yet to be worked out. In any case, home computer users who don't want to share their Wi-Fi with strangers can easily turn on the security encryption that comes with all Wi-Fi software. (More info: WarDriving.com)

Connecting a computer to a WAP is easier than it sounds. Many new models of laptops already contain Wi-Fi circuitry. With the most recent operating systems, like Windows XP or Mac OS X, Wi-Fi-enabled computers automatically detect and connect to unencrypted WAPs in the area. Older computers require the addition of a wireless card (around $50) and Wi-Fi software (or an upgrade to the latest operating system), which can be set up to auto-detect WAPs. Many Noe Valley residents are already enjoying the wireless Internet and the freedom it brings.

[Note: The preceding paragraphs were added to Elizabeth Morse's article in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of the Noe Valley Voice.]

Copyright 2002 Mariva H. Aviram. All rights reserved.