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Coffee, tea or WiFi

Chalk out a new strategy and go wireless. Or simply find a festive loo. Welcome to the esoteric world of warchalking.

by Vijay Verghese

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FIRST THERE WAS THE WAR IN IRAQ. Then came the war on bugs. Now there is “warchalking”. This is not a war on chalk, or squeaky blackboards (which would be a worthy cause), but the search for the new Holy Grail of business travel – “hotspots”. Yes, Beirut would qualify, as would Somalia if you’re into kidnappings and 3am video interviews destined for your mother who would probably freak when she saw it. “How many times must I tell you to part your hair properly, child?” However, the hotspots in question here refer to WiFi (wireless fidelity) nodes that emit radio waves. Stunning. Right? Well…er…

Why would an average pin-striper (or any sane person for that matter) have any interest in radio waves? The answer lies in a jumble of spaghetti wire and optical cable that has snaked around the world and insinuated itself into our lives as something called the Internet, the backbone of business and the bane of any parent’s life – especially when surgically removing teenage children from MSN chat.

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While Apple has been building in wireless capabilities into Macs for some time, PCs – and laptops – have lagged behind. Until Now. The launch of the new Intel Centrino laptop wireless technology and the advent of cheap WiFi cards that can be simply plugged into a PCMCIA slot, means businessmen can now prowl the streets and cruise the Web at a coffee shop, mall, or building lobby – if the place is WiFi equipped.

Of course your wife may throw a large book at you when she discovers she's just graduated from golf frau to WiFi widow.

According to various estimates, there should be over 120,000 hotspots by the year 2005. This may not seem like a lot but on a linear timeline, this growth is lightning quick. In Toronto and Montreal, pay phones have been turned into hotspots. A business traveller, then, equipped with nothing more than an Intel Centrino notebook will be able to multi-task – scrolling effortlessly through just about everything from office e-mail to flight schedules, maps, dining options and newspapers – while waiting in a hotel or airport lounge. No more downtime. WiFi has the potential to make work, fast, seamless and effective. Of course your wife who you invited along for that Hawaii conference may throw a large book at you when she realizes she’s graduated from golf widow to WiFi widow.

There is a catch. No, not your wife, or homehusband. You need to know where to hang out. As with any new subculture, things are wonderfully mysterious and clues are not always forthcoming. This is where warchalking (www.warchalking.org) comes in. Warchalkers are simply WiFi nuts who wander about ferreting out wireless nodes that they map and then mark – in chalk – with a symbol that looks like an “x”. This may be marked on the ground, the wall, on a lamppost or a park bench. These chalk marks offer wireless prowlers clues about the “mesh” in their area, or the circles of interconnecting radio waves emitted by private, commercial or government nodes. You need to find a mesh to tap into. How’s that for freeloading?

And if warchalking is not enough, the dedicated fringe is exploring some rather dodgy extensions like “wardriving” (www.wardrivingisnotacrime.com) and, I kid you not, “warflying”. Tracking WiFi terminals while driving or flying may be a great turn-on for some but it could be literally terminal if you happen to drive into that oncoming lorry.

So what do you need to go warchalking? A laptop or notebook, a wireless card, software from a company like Netstumbler (www.netstumbler.com) to scan for WiFi signals, and a keen sense of adventure. There is a bit of subterranean derring-do and hobo in warchalking that holds out great promise of bohemian escape, perhaps even romance. Once plugged in, for the most part, it’s a free ride through a shared Internet connection.

This will probably be the world’s first toilet as well with its own security guard. It's enough to drive anyone potty.

All this open access into private and government networks has official knickers in a twist. The FBI believes warchalking is potentially a terrorist threat. That’s gobbledegook, of course, though I might change my mind if someone mailed me a Michael Jackson photograph with that terrifying nose-that’s-not-really-a-nose. For the most part, warchalkers are bright young tech-heads exploring a new frontier. Every node uncovered, is another tick on the map of business travel freedom.

There are several sites catering for this new demand. One good resource is Wifinder (www.wifinder.com), a neat, simple site with a search function for global hotspot locations around the world as well as a comprehensive city/country directory of current spots. For another dull but decent option, click on www.telexyz.com/eng/prive/wifi.html.

Some of the Hongkong sites to cruise are, the Pacific Coffee outlets, PCCW retail shops, the Pacific Place information counter, Two Pacific Place lift lobby, City Plaza One 6/F lobby, Pacific Place (outside Grappa’s and the area around La Cité restaurant) and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Singapore too has been busy wiring up so businessmen can go wireless. Hotspots in Lion City include several Burger Kings, Festival Market Lau Pa Sat, Olio Domes around town, the Shangri-La lobby and swimming pool, Starbucks, Suntech, Furama Hotel’s Tiffany Café and the Holiday Inn Park View Hotel. In the Philippines, plug in at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport and in China try the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, Hongqiao International Airport Shanghai or Baiyun International Airport Guangzhou.

Even India has gone wireless at the Renaissance Hotel and Convention Centre, Mumbai. Hotspots are sprouting in the US, Europe, Brazil and Down Under.

But why limit your options? Microsoft wants to expand those frontiers and get you to surf anywhere, anytime. The MSN iLoo, a hi-tech mobile toilet will be installed at festival grounds all over Great Britain this summer complete with a plasma screen, wireless broadband, a wireless keyboard and nifty toilet paper rolls with assorted URLs (Web addresses) printed on them. It’s enough to drive anyone potty. Displaying a wry sense of humour, MSN UK describes the contraption as the world’s first “WWW.C” to capitalise on that uniquely English streak of toilet humour. This will probably be the world’s first toilet as well with its own security guard.

Power up and head out. Whether it’s WiFi or iLoo, be bold, and separate the chalk from the cheese.

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