Wireless Warriors; Hobbyists Hunt networks.(BUSINESS)

Article excerpt

Byline: William Glanz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

They are digital-age Magellans searching for something they can't see. They are techies engaged in a new hobby: war driving.

War drivers climb into cars armed with laptops, antennas and global positioning units. The devices will help war drivers sniff out wireless networks that let people hop online when they are on the move and away from their desktop computers.

"It's a very geeky pastime," said Jason Kaczor, 29, a Canadian who organized the WorldWide War-Drive, a grass-roots effort to count the number of wireless networks in North America.

War driving took root with the development of WiFi - wireless fidelity - an inexpensive, short-range technology that has been proliferating for 18 months.

WiFi lets several computers share a single high-speed Internet connection. Consumers are installing wireless networks in homes and apartment buildings. Businesses, colleges and universities are using them so employees and students can log on to the Internet or tap into computer networks remotely with laptops or personal digital assistants. The University of Georgia will plug in a wireless network tomorrow in a 24-square-block area of Athens to give people wireless access.

No definitive database of all the nation's wireless networks exists, so war drivers are out and about after work and on weekends. Some want to map the fast-growing wireless universe, some want to tap into the networks for free access to the Web.

Don Bailey, a computer security engineer, has organized NoVa Wireless, a group of WiFi enthusiasts in Northern Virginia trying to create a vast wireless network available to the public.

"I envision walking around with a PDA and there won't be a single place where I can't get free [Internet] access," he said.

Mr. Bailey, 28, climbs into his silver pickup. A laptop - manned by his friend and neighbor Keith Mitchell - runs software to find wireless networks. They sniff out 302 networks in and around Herndon in an hour. Mr. Bailey went on his first war drive about 18 months ago. The growth of WiFi since then has been enormous, indicating that consumers and companies are embracing a new way to network computers.

"At first there was one other person in my neighborhood with a wireless network and me. Now I can turn on the software in my driveway and pick up 12 [networks] without moving." he said. "People are experimenting with new technology. …