I was driving down Main Street in a small New England town in early 2002 when I got a craving for a sandwich. 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 the impulsive idea to fire up my Boingo software to see if there might be any wireless local area network signals in the air. To my amazement, a powerful signal popped up on my screen. At first I thought it might be some kind of spurious signal from a microwave oven or a diathermy machine in a doctor’s office. After starting my browser and seeing my Wall Street Journal start-page I knew I was actually on the Internet. I then started my VPN software and tunneled into IBM where I have an email account. While replicating my email from the server in IBM, I was having an IM chat session with some friends and colleagues. So, here I was surfing the web and using the Internet. I checked in with DSLReports and found that my speed was 1.2 megabits per second — 24 times faster than a 56k modem. Where was this bandwidth coming from? No idea! Who was paying for this bandwidth? Same answer.
What is going on here? It all goes back to the LAN – the local area network. For quite a few years businesses of all sizes have exploited the idea of hooking all of their PC’s together using Ethernet cabling. This has allowed them to share files and printers and generally increase productivity of “work groups”. However, in some buildings it is prohibitively expensive to do all the wiring to make the local area network possible. TheIEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – of which I am a senior member) developed a standard called 802.11b which allows PC’s to connect to each other without the Ethernet cabling. The popular name for 802.11 is “WiFi” (wireless fidelity). It uses radio waves at a radio frequency of 2.4 gigahertz, the same as some cordless phones, e.g. the Gigarange by Panasonic. Each PC must have a WiFi transmitter/receiver and antenna. The latest laptop computers, such as IBM ThinkPads, have the antenna built into the lid of the laptop and the transmitter/receiver plugged into the laptop “under the covers”. The PC’s then communicate with a “wireless access point” or WAP which is a small box with an antenna on it that has a range of about 300 feet. As long as the WAP and the PC follow the WiFi standards, they can communicate. No wires.
The range of WiFi is about the same as the cordless phone – approximately 300 feet. Until the emergence of the Pringles can solution. Some enterprising young people have discovered that they can make a long distance antenna from a Pringles can! With less than ten dollars worth of parts the can can be converted to a long distance antenna. Putting the antenna on a roof is making it possible for people to use the high speed Internet connectivity at their place of employment – from their home or apartment miles away!
Note: there are numerous high quality antennas on the market now.
WiFi 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 are also getting WAPs in their homes which they connect to their cable or DSL 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 has setup WAPs in Starbuck’s so that 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 have to “wait”. JiffyLube while your car is being serviced, the doctor and dentist offices, hotel lobbies, restaurants, the hospital lobby, and of course bus, train, and airport waiting areas.
So, there I am sitting in a booth at Subway Sandwich shop in Ridgefield. Checking my email and surfing the web. Where is the bandwith 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 that the supposed legal office was probably not aware of the encryption option and had not turned it on. Later the same week I was talking to some teenagers. They told me that they were using a cable modem and their next door neighbors were using DSL. After a couple of beers they decide that one of them would cancel their subscription and, since they all had WiFi cabability anyway, that one of them would cancel their subscription and that they would all share a single source of bandwidth.
The issues here are many – security, privacy, business models, scaleability 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 WiFi is a grass-roots trend that is irreversible. I believe this is a good thing.
As I was sitting in the Subway Sandwich shop, I was thinking about community services. I left Subway and walked down the street. The 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 street lights, fire hydrants, and parking spaces. I believe soon they will also expect WiFi connectivity. Sitting on a town or city park bench and checking email will not seem so strange, in fact it will be demanded. Not that everyone needs to be connected all the time – tethered to the Internet. But when people are waiting or watching, and if they want to be or need to be connected to the Internet, they should be able to be. The Internet has transferred power from institutions to people. It is time to enable this power to become pervasive.
Community based networks are close. 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. Companies such as Wayport and MobileStar are rolling out services to hotels and airport lounges now. Boingo and Joltage are building “footprints” and services to enable WiFi 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 anywhere they want.. A new version of the wireless technology, called 802.11a, will be launched in 2002 that will be approximately 1,000 times faster than the 56K speed that comes with PC’s today.
As I said, there are many issues. Is using the Internet at Subway stealing? There are different ways to look at it. If you take unlicensed software without permission of the owner you have possession of it and can use it at your will. If you “take” a WiFi signal that someone has made available you can only use it when you are in range of the wireless access point. Whether you should “take” the signal is another question. What does the owner of the wireless access point intend? If they turn on encryption and you hack your way into it somehow I would say that is stealing. The owner clearly does not want somebody to be using their signal. If encryption is turned off then it could be because the owner doesn’t mind others using it or it could be that the owner doesn’t know about the encryption feature or how to turn it on. I think at this stage the “stealing” that is going on is mostly a result of WAP owners not being aware. Has the “free lunch” arrived? I don’t think so. Like the early days of the Internet, when many people thought the Internet was free, it became clear what was going on. Owners of WAPs who don’t want to share it will 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.