You see, I just installed a Wi-Fi network in my home. Wi-Fi, known on Apple computers as Airport and to PC geeks as 802.11b, is an increasingly popular way to get online without being tethered to a cable. The connection hangs in the air as a radio signal, ready to be received within 300 ft. of the transmitter. Plug an Internet cable into a wireless router (I used a $199 DSL router from Belkin), put wireless cards in all your computers (they cost about $100 a pop), and you're ready to surf on the move. So, as I discovered when I took a laptop outside, are the neighbors.
And I'm hardly the only provider in town. There are so many Wi-Fi networks in San Francisco these days that I was able to drive through most of the city without ever going out of range (the whole time with a souped-up Pringles can attached to my laptop; more on that later). The practice is called war driving after the old hacker game of war dialing, which is what Matthew Broderick was doing in War Games but with far fewer unintended consequences. Indeed, many of your neighbors will happily post the location of their network on the Web effectively inviting you to piggyback on their connection.
If you want to try your hand at war driving, you can start by searching for Wi-Fi in your ZIP code on the Global Access Wireless Database (online at www.shmoo.com/gawd). This will list street intersections for most networks and tell you whether you have to pay for them. Many coffee shops, including Starbucks, charge for Wi-Fi access: $20 a month for unlimited local usage is a typical fee. On the other hand, you can get the same effect by parking near a friendly neighbor's house with a cup of joe.
Unless your laptop comes with Windows XP, which automatically detects and logs you onto any wireless network, you will need detection software. Wardriving.com has one-stop downloading for the most popular free programs: Net Stumbler or Aerosol for PCs, AP Scanner for Macintosh. You don't need street addresses with these; just drive around a busy part of town, and networks will pop up on the screen. A lock symbol means a network is encrypted and its owner is not feeling neighborly. Tapping into it could get you in big trouble.
To boost your chances of picking up a signal, you can build a Pringles-can antenna, a very cool home-brew device that plugs into most wireless cards. The easiest instructions are online at oreillynet.com/cs/weblog/view/wlg/448. Basically, you'll need a soldering iron, a glue gun and about $6.45 in parts from Radio Shack, Home Depot and the snack aisle of your grocery store. No time to build one? Perhaps one of your neighbors will help. After all, the whole block may reap the benefit.
With or without wires, e-mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org