Tools that find Wi-Fi hotspots

While any Wi-Fi discovery tool can find a hotspot, some network operators also provide connection managers for their Wi-Fi services mainly for the purpose of easily integrating account information.

A good example is Wi-Fi aggregator Boingo. We installed its GoBoingo client on our Windows XP machine. Operation of this application is a bit counterintuitive – the application wakes up when near a Boingo hotspot, but otherwise remains invisible. GoBoingo, then, while frequently listed as a discovery tool, isn't really - it's just a way to connect to Boingo, and only Boingo, and subsequently manage your Boingo account.

We also tested T-Mobile's HotSpot Connection Manager 1.8 (which is OEMed from PCTel), a fundamentally consumer-oriented tool that unsurprisingly allows the selection of a skin during installation. Upon startup it rapidly produced a list of potentially conflicting applications (like the Intel ProSet/Wireless client we normally use), disabled them (with our permission, thankfully), and subsequently fired itself right up. Selecting the 'Networks' button brought up the usual information such as SSID, icons for ad-hoc and infrastructure-mode availability, BSSID (media access control address), radio channel, details on encryption, and a nice bar graph depicting signal strength. While slower than our Intel manager, T-Mobile's tool is quite usable and suitable even for those who do not regularly use T-Mobile's hotspot service.

We should point out that neither the Boingo nor T-Mobile services actually require a connection manager, but the whole point of these, apart from discovery, is to make network access simple especially for the less than technically literate. (Compare WLAN management gear.)

Interestingly, some WWAN operators also provide discovery and connection management tools that are occasionally configured to support Wi-Fi. For example, Smith Micro Software, whose QuickLink Mobile application is used by a number of carriers, is sometimes made available with basic WLAN connectivity functionality. The product, however, is sold only on an OEM basis, and the version we frequently use at Farpoint Group -- Verizon Wireless' VZ Access Manager 6.7.3 -- has no WLAN capability. In WWAN mode (Verizon's BroadbandAccess, in our case), however, it functions in much the same way as a WLAN connection manager, discovering networks, allowing users to choose their connection, setting up links and gathering statistics. Similarly, T-Mobile's manager is configured to allow the setup of T-Mobile GPRS and EDGE connections.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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