E-Minister takes first steps towards free wireless Internet

A consultation on unlicensed radio bands could pave the way to free community wireless Internet access, but watch out for that drive-by spamming

Douglas Alexander, minister for e-Commerce, has launched a consultation on the freeing-up of radio bands to unlicensed commercial services. One possible outcome could be the legalisation of free community Internet access over 802.11b. Currently forbidden by UK law, such projects have proved popular abroad and have even proved valuable in disasters -- one system was used in Manhattan after the 11 September attacks.

The DTI says that the consultation will discuss whether current regulations should remain unchanged, whether specific and limited use of unlicensed spectrum should be allowed or whether public telecommunications should be allowed with no licence but with base station registration. As well as the wishes of potential users, the consultation is concerned with being fair to existing licence holders and the potential for interference or band congestion.

Free wireless networks take a fixed Internet access link such as a cable, DSL or corporate leased line, and make it available to all through a radio gateway and common transmission standards. There are several pilot projects already running in the UK, such as Consume the Net and free2air.org, although the legal status theoretically precludes them establishing networks. In the US the New York organisation NYCWireless, which runs a small number of free-access cells in the city, has been using 802.11b and directional antenna to provide connectivity to firms who've lost access due to attack damage.

Although 802.11b -- and other wireless standards -- work fine for connecting people within a range of around 300m from an unmodified base station, security and bandwidth allocation remain issues. Swedish group Elektrosmog says that one of its more pressing concerns is 'drive-by spamming', where people flood a public network with adverts.

The consultation will be seeking views from anyone interested, including existing telcos, wireless system providers and users. The closing date for contributions is Friday 11 January, 2002.

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