Will Boston airport Wi-Fi rift set an ugly precedent?

Summary:With both amusement and horror, I've been following a dispute that has erupted between Continental Airlines and MassPort -- the Massachusetts agency that runs Boston's Logan Airport -- over Continental's installation of a WiFi network that's freely available to some of its customers (for Internet access).  Not only has the story turned up all over the Web, but it's made the local papers and television stations here in Massachusetts where I live.

With both amusement and horror, I've been following a dispute that has erupted between Continental Airlines and MassPort -- the Massachusetts agency that runs Boston's Logan Airport -- over Continental's installation of a WiFi network that's freely available to some of its customers (for Internet access).  Not only has the story turned up all over the Web, but it's made the local papers and television stations here in Massachusetts where I live.   Almost everybody's instincts on this one are to follow the money.  MassPort has threatened to take whatever steps are necessary to shut down the free WiFi network.  Meanwhile, it's not as if Continental's passengers would be left without access to a WiFi network if that network was disabled.  MassPort has one that costs $7.95 per day. 

My first response of course is that if you're one of those people who finds yourself in that sort of pay-per-day situation on a regular basis, you're probably better off just going the EVDO route as I have gone.  Logan Airport is a perfect example of place with a lot of dead air (the WiFi network only works in certain spots) and with EVDO connectivity, you don't have get your credit card out, tweak your configuration, or snuggle up to another weary traveler that's hogging the hottest spot.  As I just wrote earlier this week, with EVDO, you can go pretty much anywhere (within your wireless carrier's coverage area), anytime.

My second response is that if MassPort prevails, this could set an incredibly ugly precedent for what I thought was freely available, unregulated airspace.   MassPort may be aware of the fact that its on shaky ground (I can't be sure.  It hasn't returned my phone calls).   One sign of this is that it's citing security as a reason that Continental Airlines can't run its access point. According to a report by News.com's Declan McCullagh, MassPort is claiming that "Continental's free service poses an 'unacceptable potential risk' to communications gear used by the state police and the Transportation Security Administration. This may throw some off the money track.  But until MassPort, the Massachusetts State Police, or the TSA can offer real proof of that risk, my nose is still on the money track.

Short of getting any answers from the horse's mouth, I tried to imagine what, if any, risk could be posed to the communications gear used by those other agencies.  I also wondered how is it that Logan's WiFi installation is able to mitigate that risk and Continental Airlines' network is not.   My last question was, if companies like Intel can run WiFi networks in other airports, how could it be that the TSA isn't equally sensitive to those networks in the other airports as it is to Continental's network in Logan.   My call to the TSA has so far gone unreturned.  Judging by the way the Massachusetts State Police spokesperson Sharon Costine told me "If you need any further information (she provided none to me in the first place), we have to refer you to MassPort," it's hard not to jump to the conclusion that the State Police had no idea what risks I was asking about.   That could explain why the TSA hasn't gotten back to me either.

So, I reached out to other experts in the area.  At first, I couldn't think of any risks.  But then, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether or not those agencies might be relying on Logan's existing Wi-Fi network for some of their mission critical, security-related activities and whether MassPort was worried that the introduction of another WiFi network into the air at Logan might result in an interruption of service.  For example, what might happen if a piece of WiFi-enabled gear belonging to the TSA mistakenly attached itself to the wrong network? Two of my neighbors, both of whom run their own WiFi access point, have seen their systems mistakenly attaching to my WiFi network.  Could such connection confusion interfere with homeland security? 

A spokesperson for one company with expertise in the technology who asked not to be identified found that explanation to be implausible -- basically saying that we've got a much bigger problem if (a) either agency was depending on an unsecured, unregulated medium for such critical communications and (b) even if they were depending on Logan's WiFi network for some application, that the state of the state of WiFi technology has evolved well beyond the point of ensuring that certain gear can only attach to certain networks.

I also had a chat with Kevin Hayes, distinguished engineer at WiFi radio maker Atheros.  He corroborated most of what my first source told me but added a few noteworthy nuggets.  Said Hayes, "If someone puts up an 802.11 network and expects that it will be interference free in a public area like an airport, they're just deluding themselves."  Implying that an access point isn' t the only WiFi device that can contribute to a cacophony of WiFi signals, Hayes went on to say that "People have laptops on all the time. When they turn them on, those laptops they visit every WiFi channel.  It's not a good thing to think your access point is isolated from anything."  I gave this some thought for a moment and then the EVDO option sprang into my head again.  Of course! Nothing prevents me or anyone else from sitting down anywhere in Logan's airport, setting my notebooks' WiFi radio to the "ad-hoc mode" and becoming an access point through which other WiFi users in the airport can gain access to my EVDO-based Internet connection (if I want them too, of course). 

I also raised the question of whether such a "rogue" access point could interfere with some other kind of gear that operates in the same frequency (2.4 Ghz, assuming it supports 802.11b which almost all public hotspots do).   Maybe the State Police are using cordless phones (my WiFi network causes all sorts of clicks, clacks and hangups to my 2.4 Ghz Siemens cordless at home).  Hayes reminded me that we're talking about an unlicensed spectrum.  "If you tell me that the TSA is making secret equipment that operates in an unlicensed band," said Hayes, "that's a bad idea. There's plenty of unlicensed spectrum [they can assign to that equipment if it exists] and the government just has to pay themselves to get access to it."

Either that or, they can pay MassPort $7.95 per day once it gets to monopolize the supposedly unmonopolizable airwaves.  Obviously, I can't say that for sure that there isn't some exotic risk that MassPort is aware of and that they just don't want publicized.   But short of evidence of such a risk, a precedent is about to be set in this situation that will ultimately affect virtually all public place.  Let's hope it's the right one.

Topics: Wi-Fi

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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