Students' map access points around downtown.

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Philip Howard has always thought of Seattle as a well-connected city. Now he has the map to prove it.

Howard, a communications assistant professor at the University of Washington, sent his class of 100 students downtown recently to map the city’s wireless landscape by locating as many Internet access points as possible.

What they found was a city practically oozing with geekiness. Within two square miles of Seattle’s downtown core, they located thousands of wireless networks. Their work helped produce a map showing the details of 5,225 networks in the city.

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The majority of access points are inside private businesses or homes, but public hot spots can also be found in libraries or cafes, including at the Seattle Central Library or the fee-based T-Mobile USA service inside Starbucks.

Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, hot spots are places where people with laptop computers or other portable devices can access the Internet. They can move about within a few hundred feet of an antenna that has a wired connection to the Internet. The antenna then beams the connection through the air using unregulated radio spectrum.

Groups of mostly tech novices from the UW cruised around the city in an exercise known to the tech savvy as “wardriving.” One student drove slowly down the street while another worked on a laptop computer with special software that scans for network connections. Two other students took turns holding a global-positioning system device that recorded the exact location of every connection they found.

The students used a program from NetStumbler.com, which provides free software to hunt Wi-Fi signals and lists available hot spots around the world. Since 2001 NetStumbler hobbyists have used the software to locate more than 2 million wireless networks, said NetStumbler.com founder Wayne Slavin.

“It’s an interesting exercise and it’s fun, like a real-life Pac-Man,” he said. “You’re gobbling up all these hot spots. Every time your laptop detects one, it makes a noise just like the game.”

The practice is legal but somewhat controversial because a small number of unscrupulous wardrivers are out to find unprotected networks to use for illegal file copying or to surf the Internet on someone else’s dime.

Howard says his monthlong project was aimed at giving students hands-on experience learning about the role of new media technologies. It also revealed some interesting details about the culture of wireless activity in Seattle.

Besides illustrating the general explosion in wireless networks, students found that more than half of the networks in the city were open, meaning people paying for them didn’t bother to restrict their access with a password or deliberately kept them open.

“There’s clearly a lot of people who’ve decided to share their connection, even if it’s just 100 meters outside their living room window,” Howard said. “Enough of these overlapping access points creates a very wired city.”

Students found that a number of Seattle residents seem to want to share their Internet connections but discourage malicious activity. They changed the names of their wireless networks to phrases like “Open to share, no porn please” or “Free access, be nice.”

Some parts of Seattle have dozens of wireless connections all within the same block, said Drew Celley, creator of WiFiMaps.com, who is using the UW data to publish detailed maps of Seattle’s wireless landscape. The corner of Third Avenue and Columbia Street, for example, has some of the densest Wi-Fi coverage in the city.

Having enough Wi-Fi access points allows people to stay connected while they roam throughout a building. But too many overlapping signals can cause interference. And leaving wireless networks open poses security risks.

One reason for their proliferation is that setting up such networks has become easier and cheaper than ever before. Wireless networking kits can be had for less than $200.

“With home users, they simply take them out of the box and use them, which is great,” Celley said. “The problem is some bad guy could be sitting out front and downloading kiddie porn.”

As the use of Wi-Fi and other forms of wireless networking grows, having some data about residents’ wireless activity could help cities and telecommunications companies work out questions of access and security, as well as discover new applications for the technology.

Seattle Wireless, a group trying to develop a wireless broadband community network, is using the UW data to determine where to place links on its network that use frequency most efficiently, said Peter Yorke, one of the group’s founders.

Another possible application involves using Wi-Fi access points to help mobile devices identify their locations inside a building, where GPS services don’t work.

“Because Seattle is such a wired city, there’s clear opportunity for people who want to design software based on location,” Howard said. “You have a lot of potential for innovation.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com


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For more information

or to download maps go to depts.washington.edu/wifimap/