Why 'digital nomads' need Wi-Fi finders

PATMOS, GREECE -- I do a lot of business travel in the United States, but I never understood the need for those Wi-Fi finder gadgets until I embarked on my current adventure in "extreme telecommuting." After six weeks living and working in Greece as a "digital nomad," I'm certain than I'll never travel abroad again without some way to detect Wi-Fi hotspots.

When you're moving in the American "business traveler bubble" -- major airports, taxis, business hotels -- it's easy to find connectivity. But here in Greece, as in many other countries, getting online affordably and reliably is surprisingly challenging. Without a Wi-Fi finder, I have to rely on posted signs. The problem with signs is that sometimes they advertise networks that in reality don't exist, aren't turned on or for whatever reason aren't functioning properly. Meanwhile, some of the best networks aren't advertised at all.

I whined and complained in an earlier post about my troubles finding connectivity on the beautiful Greek island of Crete. What I didn't tell you is that after that post, I discovered two great hotspots. While going out to dinner with some Greek friends in Agios Nikolaus on Crete, I complained to one of them about my Wi-Fi woes. Not to worry, he said, and whipped out his Windows Mobile smart phone and checked it periodically as we walked around town. "Right here -- here is an open network," he said. So the next day, I went back to the street where he found the signal, and figured that it must be provided by a restaurant on that street. I inquired, and -- sure enough -- the restaurant offered free Wi-Fi to its customers without advertising the fact anywhere. (The restaurant also had great pizza, by the way.) My friend's Windows Mobile Wi-Fi finder application was able to tell if networks were WEP enabled or system-to-system -- or, as the one he found for me, open.

The night before leaving Crete, I found a cool, rooftop bar where I opened my laptop just to see if there were any networks around, and one network had a sign in page requesting username and password. However, reading the fine print (in both Greek and English), the site said the username was "Guest," and then it gave the password, too. It turns out that this network was some kind of "municipal Wi-Fi" project to provide free, unlimited wireless access to tourists. Nobody -- not the three dozen shopkeeper and restaurant owners, not the hotel front desk people, nor anyone -- knew about this network. And, of course, there were no signs posted, nothing mentioned in the guide books and no awareness of it by my Greek friends.

With a Wi-Fi finder, I would have discovered this resource on the first day, and saved myself a lot of time, a lot of aggravation, and about $140 in hourly access fees.

I've noticed on this trip that non-usable networks (private, business or peer-to-peer networks) outnumber usable networks by ten to one. In almost every case, the SSID, or public name of the network clearly shows who's providing it. For example, a restaurant called "Jimmy's" shows up as "jimmys" on my laptop's Wireless Network Connections list. That's why standard Wi-Fi finders that show a green light in the presence of a network are novel, but largely useless. I need to know the name of the network, at minimum.

Once I get back to the States, I plan on upgrading to a Wi-Fi enabled BlackBerry, and I'm hoping to find a Wi-Fi finder application for it. But I'm open to a stand-alone device as well.

I've seen and even owned keychain gadgets, and read about nutty prototypes that could possibly be cool (such as pens, rings, shoes and other impractical devices). The idea of a Wi-Fi finder wristwatch is great, but I've never seen one that gives you all theh real details you need, such as the name of the network and whether its secure or open. And, sure, I'd love a Wi-Fi finder T-shirt as much as the next guy, but that's really not practical.

I'm impressed by what I've read about the StarTech.com Wi-Fi Detective, which does give you the SSID of found networks.

The ideal feature set for either a Wi-Fi finding wristwatch or cell phone app is one that lets you set it to "find" mode, and have it vibrate each time it discovers a new network. Then, it should display every bit of information the network is putting out -- name, signal strength, secure or non-secure and other information.

The ability to notify with a vibrating alert is important, because I don't want to walk around like Spock looking at his tri-corder hunting for alien life, nor do I want to disturb the peace of some idyllic seaside village with an audible alert going off every three minutes.

For the time being, however, I'm still going to extreme lengths to get connected. Incredibly, in order to finish this blog post, I had to wander through the dark streets of Skala on the Greek island of Patmos, with my laptop open looking for an available network. I finally found one, and was able to finish the post. I have just got to get a real Wi-Fi finder.

What's YOUR experience with Wi-Fi finders. Any advice?

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