Is Subway Surfing Stealing?

Written: June 22, 2002
Edited: September 9, 2021

Hard to believe but when I was evangelizing Wi-Fi, there were many critics. NY Times featured an article saying Wi-Fi was a fad and it would go away. I wrote the following story 19 years ago.

I was driving down Main Street in a small New England town in early 2002 when I got a craving for some lunch. I stopped at a Subway Sandwich shop and enjoyed a sandwich while looking at some offline email on my ThinkPad. Just before leaving I got an impulsive idea to see if there might be any wireless local area network signals in the air. To my amazement, I detected a powerful signal. At first, I thought it might be a spurious signal from a microwave oven or a diathermy machine in a doctor’s office.

After starting my browser and seeing the Wall Street Journal homepage, it confirmed my ThinkPad was connected to the Internet. I then started a secure connection into IBM and began downloading my email. At the same time, I started chat sessions with some friends and colleagues. So, here I was surfing the web and using the Internet. I launched a speed checker and found the connection was 1.2 megabits per second, 24 times faster than the ThinkPad’s 56 thousand bits per second modem. Where was this bandwidth coming from? No idea. Who was paying for this bandwidth? Same answer. What was going on here?

It all goes back to the LAN, the local area network. For quite a few years businesses of all sizes exploited the idea of hooking their PC’s together using Ethernet cabling. This allowed them to share files and printers and increase productivity of “work groups”. However, in some buildings it was prohibitively expensive to do all the wiring to make a LAN possible. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (where I am a fellow) developed a networking standard called 802.11which allowed PC’s to connect to each other without the Ethernet cabling. The popular name for 802.11 is “Wi-Fi” (wireless fidelity). Wi-Fi uses radio waves at a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz, the same as most cordless phones. Each PC must have a Wi-Fi transmitter/receiver and antenna. The latest laptop computers, such as IBM’s ThinkPad, have the antenna built into the lid of the laptop and the transmitter/receiver plugged into the laptop under the covers.

PCs could communicate with a “wireless access point” or WAP which is a small box with an antenna on it with a range of about 300 feet. If the WAP and the PC follow the Wi-Fi standard, they can communicate. No wires. Wi-Fi has been a great thing for companies of all sizes. It has enabled employees to use their laptops in conference rooms or at their desk without regard to where “in wall” wiring may exist. Employees have started getting WAPs in their homes which they connect to their cable or telephone modems and thereby are able to work on their email on the deck or at the kitchen island.

In the past year, IBM Global Services setup WAPs in Starbuck’s so people can be connected there too. The Admiral’s Clubs and the Austin Airport also have WiFi. This is the tip of the iceberg. Think about all the places where you must “wait”. Jiffy Lube while your car is being serviced, the doctor and dentist offices, hotel lobbies, restaurants, the hospital lobby, and bus, train, and airport waiting areas. Wi-Fi has great potential.

So, there I am sitting in a booth at a Subway Sandwich shop checking my email and surfing the web. Where is the bandwidth coming from? I suspect there is a lawyer’s office upstairs or across the street. It was a strong signal. The wireless access point name was “tsunami”. That is the default name of a Cisco wireless access point. This means the legal office was probably not aware of the encryption option to keep their Wi-Fi and LAN secure and private.

Later the same week I was talking to some teenagers. They told me they were using a cable modem with Wi-Fi and their next-door neighbors were using a telephone modem with Wi-Fi.t The fearless teenagers decided they could cancel their cable subscription and use the neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi. The issues here are many – security, privacy, business models, scalability of the infrastructure, etc. If you had made a list of the issues and concerns about the Internet in 1993 it would have been the same list! Yes, there are issues but, just like the Internet of ten years ago, the emergence of Wi-Fi is an irreversible grass-roots trend. I believe this is a good thing, and all the issues can be resolved.

As I was sitting in the Subway Sandwich shop, I was thinking about community services. I left Subway and walked down the street. The unencrypted signal was strong for the whole block. There is a park bench across the street. Too cold to use it today but, in the summer, it would be nice! When people are downtown in their communities, they expect to have streetlights, fire hydrants, and parking spaces. I believe soon they will also expect Wi-Fi. Sitting on a town or city park bench and checking email will not seem so strange, in fact it will be demanded. Not everyone needs to be connected to the Internet all the time but when people want to be or need to be connected to the Internet, they should be able.

The Internet has transferred power from institutions to people. I believe it is time to enable this power to become pervasive. Community based networks will evolve. Your next coffee order may not be a “to-go” order, especially when you can relax with your coffee and be connected to the Internet. No longer will people have to look for the fax machine to get connected. Networking companies are beginning to roll out Wi-Fi services in hotels and airport lounges. Eventually, Wi-Fi will be everywhere. The fee structure and relationship to local phone companies will be worked out. People will have high-speed access, no hassles with dialing, and be connected in their homes and everywhere they go. A new version of the 802.11 wireless technology will be launched in 2002 and will be approximately 1,000 times faster than the 56K speed that comes with PC’s today.

There are many issues with Wi-Fi. Is using a nearby tenant’s Internet at Subway stealing? There are different ways to look at it. If you use unlicensed software without permission of the owner, it is ok to use it at will. Is it ok to use someone else’s Wi-Fi signal they have unknowingly made available? What does the owner of the wireless access point intend? If they turn on encryption and you hack your way into it, I say it is stealing. The owner clearly does not want somebody to be using their signal. If encryption is turned off, it could be because the owner doesn’t mind others using it or it could be the owner doesn’t know about the encryption feature or how to turn it on. I think at this stage the “stealing” going on is mostly a result of WAP owners not being aware.

Owners who don’t want to share their WAP should turn on their encryption. Hopefully, many others will help create community wireless networks and purposely make them available as a public resource. The business models for making this happen are not yet clear but I am confident they will emerge.