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Want to share Wi-Fi? Just ask

To counter a cable crackdown on customers who let others tap into their wireless access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation starts listing ISPs who may turn a blind eye.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is spreading the word about Internet service providers likely to go easy on people who share their wireless access.

The organization has begun keeping a list of such ISPs, which it deems unlikely to shut down the accounts of customers sharing access to their Wi-Fi networks free of charge.

The move is in response to Time Warner Cable's recent crackdown on such customers. The broadband provider sent letters threatening to cut service to customers who let others freely tap into their Wi-Fi Internet access, said Fred Von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on the civil liberties issues surrounding digital technology.

"The Time Warner action has obviously made it clear that there are some ISPs who want to forbid it," Lohmann said. "We felt it was important to let people know of broadband providers who don't forbid it. Then let the market decide."

The crackdown is reminiscent of the cable industry's attempts to target cable thieves in the 1980s, and it reflects the soaring popularity of wireless Net access. After being introduced just a couple years ago, so-called Wi-Fi "hot spots" are now in at least 15 million homes and offices worldwide.

Hot spots are wireless networks that use the 802.11b standard, also known as Wi-Fi. They have been set up for use in homes as well as businesses that cater to tech-savvy customers, such as cafes, hotels, airports and conference centers. Some governments have even stepped in, setting up networks in business parks or public gathering spots.

The carriers have largely ignored the sharing phenomenon. The recent warnings represent the first time a cable provider has taken steps against customers who let others use their Wi-Fi access.

AT&T Broadband has so far shut one account for violating the company's policies about sharing bandwidth, an AT&T Broadband spokeswoman said Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable said to her knowledge, none of those receiving warning letters have had their service shut down.

Two of the 11 "Wireless-Friendly ISPs" so far listed are national providers: EarthLink and Covad Communications.

EarthLink subscribers "should first research their own service plans" before sharing their bandwidth, EFF's Web site warns. Covad's user contract lets multiple users in the same home share bandwidth, but it doesn't mention that the sharing is forbidden outside the home or office.

The other companies on EFF's list are smaller ISPs, such as Ace Cape, which sells DSL service to several thousand customers in the New York metropolitan area.

Co-Founder Arkady Goldinstein said Ace Cape isn't exactly encouraging Wi-Fi bandwidth sharing, but isn't forbidding it either. He said knows of "several dozen" customers who share access to the company's Wi-Fi network.

It's a small enough number not to raise any concerns about the network being overwhelmed by unauthorized users, which could choke off the amount of bandwidth available for legitimate customers, he said.

"Should we allow it? Why not?" Goldinstein said Tuesday.