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Cable companies cracking down on Wi-Fi

Broadband providers are threatening to cut service to customers who set up wireless systems and allow others to log on for free. Are you at risk?

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
6 min read
Broadband providers are cracking down on popular Wi-Fi networks, threatening to cut service to customers who set up the inexpensive wireless systems and allow others to freely tap into their Internet access.

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Time Warner Cable of New York City has given 10 customers less than a week to stop using their accounts to provide a wireless local area network available to anyone within 300 feet. The letters are just an initial volley; Time Warner expects to send additional letters, while AT&T Broadband also is preparing similar letters for some of its customers.

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" that tap into cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL) are now in at least 15 million homes and offices.

The problem is that one paying subscriber can set up a local network that allows several other people to access the Net, for fun or for profit.

Hot spots have been set up by everyone from individuals just looking for a way to work in another part of their homes to businesses, cafes, hotels, airports and conference centers that cater to their tech-savvy customers. Some city governments have even stepped in, setting up networks in business parks or public gathering spots.

The carriers have largely ignored the phenomenon, and the recent warning letters represent the first time the cable providers have taken action to punish people who set up the networks. Only one major company offering high-speed Internet access--Covad Communications--has a policy that addresses Wi-Fi, and it permits access from nonpaying customers without any extra fees.

For now, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Broadband appear to be targeting people whose locations are advertised by grassroots groups like NYCwireless and San Francisco's Bay Area Wireless Users Group, which identify and share information online about hot spots.

"They waived a banner in our faces and said, 'Look what we're doing!'" said Suzanne Giuliani, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable of New York City. The company wasn't actively looking for violators, she said, but only reacted when someone pointed out the NYCwireless Web site to them.

For now, the crackdown is a "one-time effort," Giuliani said, but the company hasn't ruled out doing it again depending on the situation.

The company's letter tells customers that they've been identified as sharing bandwidth and says they have a certain number of days to respond or their service will be cut off. The letter isn't likely to be a surprise, because most people submit their information voluntarily to these lists. But it is possible that some locations are listed without the paying customers knowing because there are "sniffers" that can locate and identify access points.

The free wireless network groups behind the Web sites are angry their customers are being targeted--but acknowledge that hot spots likely violate rules against redistributing bandwidth. And while some people set up hot spots with the intention to share their Internet access, there are plenty of people who simply set them up for their own use and can't control the fact that the access "bleeds" for about 300 feet, allowing others to piggyback on the service without the account holder even knowing.

"It's very shortsighted that they are developing such a hostile relationship with early adopters of their own technology," said Anthony Townsend, a spokesman for NYCwireless.

Giuliani said the company considers it not just theft, but a drain on the existing resources for other subscribers. There is also possible criminal culpability that comes from opening up a network for anyone to use without paying.

"Individuals utilizing (their subscription) in this manner to carry out criminal activity would be able to do so in an anonymous manner," the Time Warner Cable letter warns. "In such circumstances, when law enforcement is attempted to trace such activity, the trail would end with your account."

AT&T Broadband says its warnings will be dispatched in a matter of weeks. It's now actively searching public network Web sites, then sniffing for signals in a given area advertised as being part of a free network. It can prove to be an elusive hunt, though.

"With cable theft, you can follow wires and see someone physically tapped in," said AT&T Broadband spokeswoman Sara Eder. "Finding who's redistributing the signal through Wi-Fi is a little more elusive."

There is an easy way to block unwanted users. Access points from equipment makers D-Link Systems, Compaq Computer and Agere Systems have a way to lock up the network by demanding a password. But the security settings are turned off when the equipment ships from the factories to make it easy to install, said Rob Enderle of the Giga Information Group.

How do they do that?
The crackdown probably won't affect the robust cottage industry of so-called "wireless Internet service providers" (WISPs) that began sprouting last year.

WISPs, including Joltage and Boingo, are stitching together a nationwide network of hot spots. WISPs are for-profit concerns, though, charging for daily or monthly access to any of their locations.

So far, WISPs haven't reported any problems or threats from cable or broadband providers. Most partner with broadband providers with more relaxed policies about sharing bandwidth, then offer those services to new network members at reduced prices.

For example, Web provider EarthLink sells Wi-Fi access though a deal it has with Boingo. About 70 percent of Boingo's hot spots use the high-priced broadband services generally offered to businesses, premium subscriptions crafted to serve offices with hundreds of people on a single computer network. As a result, the sharing bandwidth policies are more relaxed, said Boingo spokesman Christian Gunning.

Joltage has a deal with Atlas Broadband, a reseller of broadband services. Joltage Chief Executive Michael Chaplo said new Joltage members are always told that their broadband provider must allow sharing of the bandwidth. If not, he said, Atlas Broadband services are offered to them as an alternative.

But that isn't stopping new hot spots from using any provider they want, Chaplo said. "We can't enforce our policy or guarantee it," he said. "But obviously we've got the answer; it's Atlas."

It's not clear if the high-speed Internet access providers will eventually turn their attention to more established companies that provide Wi-Fi access, such as airports and hotels. Last week, the Fairmont Hotel chain announced that all 38 of its hotels in six countries now offer wireless access in all public areas of the hotels.

Depending on their arrangement with providers, some hotels may have problems. Most hotels using wireless networks also have the more expensive commercial DSL services, which have limited or no shared-use policies, according to Mike Henderson, marketing director of StayOnline, which sells wired and wireless equipment to the hospitality industry.

"I've seen guys taking a regular cable modem and some equipment from (Wi-Fi maker) D-Link and stringing it up in their lobby just to say they have it," he said. "Those guys are the ones that will be in trouble."

For the average customer looking for free access, it's getting easier all the time to find hot spots. Aside from checking the grassroots sites, there is sniffer software, usually free, that tells a Wi-Fi card in a laptop or PDA (personal digital assistant) to search for the nearest network. A more low-tech approach that has caught fire in Europe is called "warchalking," where people chalk symbols on a sidewalk or building to indicate a nearby hot spot.

A simple solution to companies cracking down on shared access could be for Wi-Fi fans to vote with their wallets--and pick a high-speed Internet access provider that allows for Wi-Fi use, such as Covad or any of the smaller Web providers that have already approved Wi-Fi use, proponents say.

Adam Shand of the Personal Telco Project in Portland, Ore., said he's negotiated agreements with two small Web providers in the Portland area.

"Some ISPs say, 'What, are you crazy?'" he said. "Others, say, 'Why not? If it causes a problem, we'll let you know.'"