Renegade WLANs: Parasitic or Free-Spirited Anarchistic?
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In the wake of Sept. 11th, many high-tech firms that lost their wired Internet connections are turning to a band of wireless renegades who combine low-tech antennas, leading-edge networking tools and a spirit of the 1960s.
When we envision wireless networks, we think of multi-million dollar national systems with expansive infrastructure or well-financed corporations at the leading edge of the mobile industry. Not often does our picture of wireless networking include a Pringles can, a broadband connection and tech geeks infused with the spirit of the 1960s.
Young wireless enthusiasts, following in the footsteps of pirate radio, ham radio and Linux hackers across North America and Europe are using 80211b to open free public access points. While operating now mostly under the radar of most consumers and wireless providers, the trend poses questions for those seeking to charge for a service these scattered volunteer organizations see as essential as water.
Essentially, free community wireless access is achieved by a person volunteering to broadcast his DSL or cable modem connection allowing anyone nearby to use the signal for checking out Web sites or sending and reading e-mail -- all at a speed greater than dial-up or third-generation wireless services. All for free.
Well, nearly free. People in these wireless clouds need an inexpensive 802.11b, or WiFi, networking card and the volunteer broadcaster uses some software to turn his computer into a wireless base station. A high-gain antenna can be created with an empty Pringles container or a coffee can and some wires, say those involved. These bottom-up wireless networks can be received up to 300 feet from the home-made access point.
Independent consultant Terry Schmidt joined NYCWireless in May after creating a free wireless network in an Upper Ease Side coffee shop. The group hopes to establish 15 more sites where people can get free wireless access in New York City.
Groups such as NYCWireless bristle at the term "parasitic networking." They point to the high access rates charged by large service providers as being parasitic. Instead, they see the movement as a way to bring communities closer together, offering services to those organizations typically unable to afford the latest technology and a way to harness unused computing power.
Wireless giants such as Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner view the move to free wireless networking as possibly violating usage agreements. They also believe such sharing will degrade network performance as well as leave the persons volunteering their broadband connections open to lawsuits if anyone misuses the piggybacked services. While no lawsuits are currently being considered, backers of the free wireless networks see a test legal case as inevitable.
Along with New York City, there are 20 free wireless access points in Seattle, where mayoral candidate Scott Kennedy uses an empty canister of Pringles chips as a high-gain antenna at his Bit Star Cafe to boost customers' reception. Wireless users can also find free broadband connections in San Francisco, Aspen, Portland, British Columbia and London.
What's the future hold for these public networks? While they are faster than proposed 3G, they won't challenge the high-speed mobile networks. Third-generation networks are too ubiquitous. NYCWireless calculates one person a day uses the free networks.
The public wireless networks aren't a threat to the big service providers. The volunteer WiFi systems have no roaming and little security.
But Townsend and Schmidt see the day when wireless consumers will be able to scan the available networks and choose whether to use a fee-based service or a free public mobile network.