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EFF Tracks Wireless-Friendly Service Providers

The 802.11b standard, or Wi-Fi revolution as it is being called by many, might be the greatest thing since slice bread for tech savvy wireless users, but for big business Internet Service Providers (ISPs) it is akin to stealing the wool off a sheep's back.

Wi-Fi has spawned huge numbers of community networks that piggyback on legitimate ISP networks to provide Internet access to anyone in the vicinity of a wireless hub, without the user having to sign up for a paid service plan.

In many ways this grassroots movement has been a Godsend for travelers, chronic Web surfers, wireless cafi society, and those who believe that all things Internet should be free. But it is also becoming a source of angst for many major ISPs like Time Warner Cable and AT&T Broadband who find the very idea of having their networks used by large numbers of non-paying customers irksome, not to mention unlawful.

When traveling to a new city, or traversing the familiar neighborhood haunts of one's own city, there is no question that tapping into free wireless "hot spots" is a convenient and luxurious "modern age" amenity. But many of the networks being tapped into are not willing participants in this grassroots movement and find the free access an infringement on their wireless networks as well as a revenue threat.

"Sharing wireless access is a valuable community service, but many ISPs don't see it that way," said Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for EFF. "Some, like New York's Time Warner Cable, have begun enforcing radical terms of service that let them sue customers who share wireless access.

"There's a huge demand for the freedom to operate community wireless access points," von Lohmann added. "We're making sure people have the information to make informed decisions when they choose their ISPs and in identifying vendors who can provide that service."

In light of this growing controversy between ISPs and advocates of unlimited Wi-Fi access, the EFF published a list this week of ISPs that don't prohibit, and in some cases encourage, having their networks shared among wireless users. From the EFF's perspective, it is an attempt to encourage customers to read the fine print on their contracts with broadband providers and clearly understand the limits of their network access.

"We're trying to help people understand that this is a feature of the product that they should be looking for," said Lohmann. "Some ISPs explicitly say that the broadband access is for your own personal use and that you are not permitted to share the network with other people."

In the case of Rick Tait, a subscriber to Time Warner Cable's Road Runner ISP, Tait had been running an open wireless gateway by hanging a low-cost wireless hub off of his cable-modem connection and making the service from his ISP available to his neighbors and any one else in the area searching for a wireless Internet connection.

Tait is also a member of NYC Wireless, a Wi-Fi advocacy group that has set up close to 100 Wi-Fi hubs in New York to date, with 50 of them in Manhattan.

Then Tait received a cease-and-desist order from Time Warner's legal department:

"You should be aware that this is a very serious problem that goes beyond the theft of our services," stated the letter. "It is not our desire at this time to sue you, and we assume that it is not your desire to allow unknown users to anonymously plan criminal acts through your account. However, your wireless broadcast of the Road Runner service must immediately cease and desist.

Apparently Tait was not alone, and after posting the letter to his Web site, he soon heard of dozens of other cease-and-desist orders that Time Warner had issued to those using the 80211.b standard to share Internet access.

"Time Warner Cable is free to bind its customers to any lawful terms of service that it thinks the market will bear, of course. It all comes down to the right of a customer to choose which business she will patronize, " the EFF stated.

But according to Lohmann, eventually the tangle of ISP networks that are being tapped into will have to sort itself out, and by choosing an ISP that shares a more liberal view of network usage, it creates a competitive environment that eventually might make more traditional ISPs sit up and take notice.

"The idea is to help people be smart consumers," said Lohmann. "Customers who value the public-spiritedness and civil-liberties aspects of community wireless networks should choose ISPs like New York's bway.net, whose director of marketing says, 'If someone buys DSL from us, and they want to set up a wireless network so their friends can use it, that doesn't make them bad customers.'"

Among the list of American ISPs that the EFF recommends as having more amendable terms of use when it comes to bandwidth sharing are: Ace DSL, which openly allows wireless network sharing; bway.net, a promoter of Wi-Fi communities; Atlas Broadband, which according to EFF even provides the hardware to set up your wireless access point; Britsys, which services the North Carolina area and does not discourage broadband sharing; Cloud9, a New York-based ISP that allows sharing; Dallas-based frontertelekom, which does not restrict network sharing, Continet, a service in the Oregon area that does not directly prohibit network sharing in its contract; Earthlink, which prohibits high-volume use, but offers up a variety of different service plans; EasyStreet, a nationwide service that has been an open advocate of broadband sharing; MonkeyBrains.net, a dial-up ISP that is game when it comes to network monkey business; OnRamp Access; Speakeasy; 2Alpha; Covad; and Peak.

In addition, there are numerous wireless community networks like NYC Wireless, BAWUG in the Bay Area, Personal Telco in Seattle, Austin Wireless, and Pittsburgh Wireless that serve as network links to the scores of Wi-Fi hubs in any given city.

The EFF will continue to update its list as more ISPs alter their terms and conditions to include shared access, which according to Lohmann, "will happen eventually if they want to hold on to their customers."