Under the NetShare program, the Seattle-based Internet service provider is allowing people to resell access to their broadband connection to neighbors for anywhere from $20 to $100 a month. Speakeasy handles the billing, provides the downstream customers with their own e-mail boxes and other ISP basics, and takes half the amount charged on their bills.
"It's a great way to use Wi-Fi at the grassroots level to extend the reach of broadband," said Joe Laszlo, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "Speakeasy gets more customers for their service, without having to pay anyone else for costly DSL (digital subscriber lines)."
But the program may put Speakeasy at odds with some larger ISPs, which have tried to who share their connections with other households over a wireless network.
The new service puts a semiofficial stamp on a practice that has long been used in tech-savvy households around the country. Wireless 802.11, or Wi-Fi, technology allows computer users to set up a network "hot spot" that gives people within its range of about 300 feet the ability to tap into a central Net connection.
The technology has spurred the creation of thousands of wireless-enabled Internet cafes,and public hot spots in airports and city parks. But a growing number of individuals have also created their own open, unprotected networks in order to share their connections with neighbors or even passersby.
The potential for Wi-Fi to serve as ahas been raised by analysts, but large telecommunications companies have done little to pursue the idea, fearful of cannibalizing their existing broadband markets.
In a recent poll of its customers, Speakeasy found that 40 percent of its broadband subscribers had already set up a wireless home network of some kind, compared with about 3 percent of all Internet users. That statistic helped prompt the new NetShare program, according to product manager Arnaud Gautier.
The new program will put ordinary Internet subscribers in the unfamiliar position of being responsible for their neighbors' Internet connections. That means if a downstream customer's connection goes out, the first place to call is the original Speakeasy subscriber.
Those potential headaches will be offset by the opportunity to recoup an entire month's broadband fees by reselling access to a connection to a few neighbors, Speakeasy hopes. Participants can choose how much they will charge each neighbor, but each downstream customer will get the full range of the ISP's services, no matter how much they pay.
Wi-Fi equipment prices have come down to the point where a combination router and access point--the main piece of hardware needed to set up the service--costs just $80. Downstream subscribers will need their own Wi-Fi access card, which typically costs about $40.