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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 00:37 GMT 01:37 UK
Chalk points to wireless internet
Danish warchalk, Sebastian Buettrich
Warchalking is an international phenomenon
BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

A low-tech approach to finding wireless internet connections is fast becoming a global phenomenon.

Called warchalking, the idea has become so popular that it has even spawned a line of clothing.

In late June web designer Matt Jones came up with the idea of using chalk marks on pavements and walls to reveal the existence of wireless networks anyone could use to surf the net.

He designed a basic set of symbols that summarised the types of wireless networks people would find, gave it the name "warchalking" and published his ideas on his weblog.

The rest is rapidly becoming history.

Big idea

The idea of "warchalking" derives from the early days of computer networks when curious hackers would engage in "wardialling" expeditions which involved phoning lots of numbers to see which ones answered with a data, rather than a dial, tone.

The advent of wireless computer networks that let people connect up to the net via a radio link has given birth to a new hobby among curious hackers.

London warchalk, Matt Sephton
Oxford Street is warchalked
Now instead of "wardialling" they go on "wardriving" or "warwalking" expeditions.

On these trips they carry a laptop or handheld computer fitted with software that can spot wireless networks and plot where they are.

Mr Jones said that the numbers of wireless networks was proliferating and many were being created as free nets that serve anyone who wants to use them.

Warchalks are a good way to let people know of their existence and zero in on their exact location, said Mr Jones.

"Being recognised for the public good you are providing is one of the good feedbacks we have had from this," Mr Jones told the BBC programme Go Digital.

The warchalking website has been a big hit on the web and slowly people have taken up the idea.

A few wild warchalks are starting to appear in places such as Maryland, Copenhagen, London and San Jose. The idea is slowly catching on.

"It's one thing for it to be popular on the internet and it's another for it to break out in the real world," he said.

Real world web

Now a company is producing warchalking clothing and the practice of using a wireless network for free internet access has even made it to the panels of the respected Doonesbury cartoon.

The 21 June edition of the strip features one character using another's home wireless net to surf the web.

Warchalk in the US, Mike Lee
Maryland's first Warchalk
In the UK the idea of chalking up networks could be given a boost by the decisions of companies such as BT and Megabeam to set up wireless networks that people can use, albeit for a price.

The London School of Economics has set up a wireless network that students can use for web access while near its buildings.

One warchalker has already discovered that some of the kiosks dotting London's Oxford Street contain wireless nodes that anyone can use.

But this success has caused problems for Mr Jones who never intended to become the co-ordinator of an international movement.

"The real thing that I want to be able to do is to turn it over to someone else," he said. "It's becoming a bit of a monster."

Mr Jones is looking for help from people who run, or are setting up, community wireless networks.

He said the site could act as a repository of expert advice to help people who want to set the networks up, keep them running and attract a regular user community.

You can hear more about warchalking on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

The BBC's Robert Nisbet
"The hieroglyphics explain where you can log on without using a cable"
See also:

01 Jul 02 | dot life
18 Mar 02 | dot life
12 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
11 Mar 02 | dot life
26 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
10 Apr 02 | Business
24 May 02 | Technology
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