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Boingo's wireless hotspot finder handy but wet behind ears

This week, Lisa Phifer reviews a wireless hotspot finder by Boingo.

Product Name: Boingo Software
Company Name: Boingo Wireless, Inc.
URL: http://www.boingo.com

Price: Free Software + Boingo HotSpot Usage
Individual Plans range from $7.95 per day (as you go) to $49.95 per month (unlimited)

Platforms: Windows XP, 2002, ME, 98SE, and PPC 2002 on iPAQ 3000 PDAs

Bottom line: Very handy for mobile laptops, but still wet behind the ears on PPC

In a nutshell: Easy-to-use 802.11 discovery tool that helps travelers locate and connect to Boingo hotspots and other WLANs.

Pros:
  • Simple to install, very intuitive interface
  • Can secure wireless data with VPN when connected to Boingo hotspots
  • Also helps manage connections to other hotspots and your own WLAN

Cons:
  • Very limited support for PDAs right now
  • You'll also need to use a supported Wi-Fi adapter
  • Boingo hotspots are prevalent in some cities, but not in others

Review synopsis:
If you travel with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or PDA, you've probably spent at least a few hours tracking down local hotspots or reconfiguring your Wi-Fi card to swap settings required by the WLAN at your office and the one at your favorite airport or Starbucks. Boingo's software makes these tasks easier, even if you're not visiting a Boingo hotspot.

Boingo Wireless is a hotspot aggregator. Boingo subscribers receive one login and password that logs them into...

any Boingo partner's hotspot, with one combined bill for usage ("connect days"). Boingo hotspots can be found in over 1,300 locations, but whether you'll find that to be a lot or a little depends on where you travel. For example, there are only five Boingo hotspots in my area code (610). But there are nearly twenty in New York City, and too many to count in the San Francisco Bay Area. If Boingo has your stomping grounds covered, you may prefer unlimited usage. Otherwise, the pay-as-you-go plan lets you tap Boingo hotspots where available without racking up charges when they're not. Corporate plans are also available.

The coolest thing about Boingo's software is that it is not limited to Boingo hotspots. Sure, there are features that apply only to Boingo hotspots -- notably, the hotspot location directory (of course!) and secure tunneling through Boingo's VPN gateway. But most features can be used with any WLAN. For example:

  • A "NetStumbler"-like discovery tool that sniffs out access points, identified by SSID, MAC address, channel, and signal strength. You can try to connect to any discovered WLAN -- if that WLAN happens to be a Boingo hotspot, you'll be prompted for your login and password before access is approved.

  • A "Signal Settings" wireless profile manager that lets you define and prioritize the WLANs to which you frequently connect. This is handy if you need to use WEP keys on the office WLAN but not at hotspots, and you don't want to fiddle with adapter settings as you move back and forth.

  • A performance graph, connection history log, and connection status display that lets you easily see what's happening to your Wi-Fi adapter, without needing to be a rocket (or RF) scientist.

I found Boingo very easy to install and use on my WinXP laptop, where there are many supported Wi-Fi adapters. I had no trouble alternating between my own WLANs, Boingo hotspots, and T-Mobile hotspots (although a T-Mobile login is needed to use the latter). The only hitch was that I also found (but could not successfully connect to) peer-to-peer wireless nodes. I'd rather not even see those in the signal list.

I was unable to use Boingo hotspots on my PDA, an HP Jornada. Oddly, I had no trouble connecting to my own WLAN using Boingo software -- I just could not connect to Boingo hotspots. Tech support tells me that Pocket PC support is currently limited to the iPAQ 3000 series due to driver issues, but this will likely change when Boingo supports CF cards on PDAs. Currently, Boingo only supports a few Wi-Fi PC cards on PDAs -- including my Agere adapter.

If you're a WLAN administrator, you won't use Boingo software for rogue AP discovery. But WLAN users who travel and like to access public hotspots will find Boingo's Wi-Fi sniffer to be a handy mobile laptop utility.

About the author: Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.


This was last published in June 2003

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