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Free wireless Net access for the masses

Community groups are extending Net access through the 802.11b wireless standard, generating a phenomenon reminiscent of the Napster craze.

Tim Pozar used to speak only rarely to his neighbors in San Francisco's foggy Sunset district, but that changed the day he hung out a wireless antenna and welcomed the world to use his high-speed Internet line.

"I've gotten to know the neighbors much better," said the professional network and telecommunications consultant. "Occasionally, they bring me pies and things like that."

Pozar, a key member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group (BAWUG), broke the ice when he joined a growing number of enthusiasts setting up wireless access points that let neighbors and passers-by roam the streets of urban areas and access the Internet wirelessly, at blazing speeds, for free.

The perk comes courtesy of community groups that are extending Internet access through the 802.11b wireless networking standard, sometimes known as Wi-Fi. Other sources of the high-bandwidth giveaway, whether they know it or not, are corporations whose Wi-Fi networks are accessible to passers-by.

"It's not so much idealistic as altruistic," Pozar said. "We are getting rid of the last-mile cost of connecting to the Internet, but the benefits go beyond that. It's more like a co-op. People pitch in in one form or another to contribute to building the network, and that opens up to a lot of personal sharing."

To be sure, much of the development of Wi-Fi connectivity is for-profit. Microsoft has included the technology in its XP operating system and has outfitted its own corporate campuses--and Starbucks coffee shops nationwide--with it. Companies like Wayport and MobileStar provide the wireless connection at hotels, airports and cafes. Apple uses 802.11b for its AirPort wireless Internet access device.

But the free underground networks have generated a phenomenon reminiscent of the Napster craze. Brewster Kahle, the founder of a San Francisco wireless group known as SFLan, has heralded a new "anarchistic cooperation" that will bring free wireless Internet access to the masses.

Others predict a more difficult future for the underground networks--variously referred to as neighborhood area networks, "freenets," parasitic or piranha grids, and broadband bootlegging--and say they could ultimately succumb, like Napster, to a sustained corporate challenge.

"Voluntary organizations are going to spark action by large corporations," said Alan Reiter, president of the Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing consultancy. "They're going to see this grassroots effort and try to crush it if they can make money by doing so."

Banding together for bandwidth
Community groups across the nation and the globe have banded together to promote the proliferation of free Wi-Fi networks, which let neighbors and passers-by equipped with an inexpensive networking card share the wireless high-speed access. For those setting up these networks, the cost of becoming in effect a wireless ISP for the neighborhood is just a few hundred dollars for an access point placed on a rooftop or near a window.

The Wi-Fi signal does not in and of itself access the Internet. Instead, it provides an avenue for numerous people to share an existing broadband Internet service, such as a cable or DSL connection.

Community groups and some legal experts say there's nothing inherently wrong with this type of sharing.

"If you wanted to run a water hose on the sidewalk and let people wash their car with that, there's nothing that would prevent you from benefiting the welfare of the community around you," said Fred Von Lohmann, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

But Lohmann cautioned that a number of Internet service providers require that subscribers sign agreements that limit the use of the service by third parties.

Excite@Home, AT&T and Time Warner, three of the nation's biggest providers of cable Internet access, all limit the sharing of a single connection.

Sharing a residential Time Warner cable account through a Wi-Fi network "would be a violation of the agreement that we entered into for residential service and might subject that customer to federal and state penalties," said Time Warner representative Harriet Novet.

Asked whether Time Warner would prosecute Wi-Fi violators, Novet said only that Time Warner was taking a wait-and-see approach and "observing the market."

AT&T Broadband accused the neighborhood Wi-Fi networks of outright theft.

"This would be akin to stealing cable," said Sarah Eder, a representative for AT&T Broadband. "When there are multiple users on a cable modem that we don't know about, that we're not assigning, we can't accurately manage bandwidth, and we can't give customers the service that they're paying for."

Suspicious activity
In response to the phenomenon, AT&T said it monitors residential subscribers for "inordinately high" bandwidth usage. In suspicious cases, the ISP contacts the subscriber; if the activity continues, AT&T terminates the service.

In addition to the access provided intentionally by the community groups, many corporations using 802.11b for their own corporate networks are giving nearby Internet users a free ride at the cost of their own security.

In an activity known as "war driving"--a term adapted from "war dialing," or the brute force method of locating insecure dial-up computer connections--802.11 enthusiasts and security analysts drive through neighborhoods and industrial areas piecing together Wi-Fi coverage.

The results from these war-driving expeditions in the Bay Area indicate room for improvement among companies using Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi's security concerns are well-known, particularly following a report by University of California researchers showing holes in the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol used by 802.11.

Security consultant Peter Shipley estimated from his research that only about 15 percent of corporations were using network-level encryption for their wireless systems.

"I should not be able to walk down the street in San Francisco and access corporate LANs for banks, financial services companies and lawyers," Shipley said. "It's been clearly shown that wireless is being heavily deployed, and if you were to walk down the street in San Francisco, you would find three or four networks per block, with seven or eight on some streets--all unsecured."

The cost of a free alternative
While businesses implementing Wi-Fi networks grapple with security risks, network operators are facing down the threat posed by a free alternative to the services they hope to charge for.

For-profit wireless ventures already have faced hardship. To build a nationwide proprietary wireless network costs at least $1 billion, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing's Reiter estimated, for which there is no sure return on the investment. Last month, Metricom shut down its nationwide Ricochet service and went out of business.

"This is free for the end user--that's great news," said Jane Zweig, chief executive of The Shosteck Group. "But it sure isn't from the standpoint of companies trying to make money while facing the expense of building the network and building the services. If it's free, where's the business case? We call it the 'piranha grid,' because it eats away at the business cases of the traditional network operators."

Reiter and other analysts are quick to point out that the patchwork nature of the community Wi-Fi networks could very well keep it the province of urban tech sophisticates. They suggest that business users will be willing to pay monthly subscription fees for continuous coverage and guarantees of service and security.

One emerging protocol, 802.1x, is designed to address these problems by establishing a means for user authentication. Recently adopted by Microsoft in its Windows XP operating system, 802.1x relies on certificates to identify people, authorize them to access various Wi-Fi networks, and let them travel seamlessly between one and the next.

The widespread adoption of 802.1x could lay the groundwork for individuals to set up their own Wi-Fi access points under the aegis of a subscription service that would account for how much access they provided in a given period of time and pay them for it.

In fact, even some neighborhood networking activists suggest that the profit motive and practical considerations will ultimately turn existing free networks into paid services.

"I would like to encourage people to deploy access points," Pozar said. "How do you do that? There's some cost involved, and technical savvy. Wouldn't it be nice if they could start getting checks once a month?"