The real way to free Wi-Fi

The real way to free Wi-Fi

Summary: The Washington Post story about "free" super-Wi-Fi has been largely discredited, but there already is a practical plan for free Wi-Fi: Sharing. Here's how it works.

TOPICS: Networking, Wi-Fi

Unless you've been under a rock or don't care about technology, you already know that The Washington Post story about free "Super Wi-Fi" was fundamentally wrong. There is, however, a realistic plan afoot to bring free Wi-Fi to many people: The Open Wireless Movement.

We can have free Wi-Fi today... if you're willing to share. (Credit: Open Wireless Movement)

Unlike the so called Super Wi-Fi 600MHz white space approach, which would require miracles in law, technology, and Internet infrastructure build-out to succeed, open wireless is already with us. It was started in 2011 by Peter Eckersley, the Technology Projects Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It's really just an extension of an idea that's as old as wireless networks: Simply let people use some of your bandwidth with open Wi-Fi access points (APs)

As Eckersley said, when he announced the movement, open Wi-Fi APs have grown scarce. "The gradual disappearance of open wireless networks is a tragedy of the commons, with a confusing twist of privacy and security debate. This essay explains why the progressive locking of wireless networks is harmful—for convenience, for privacy and for efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum."

Later, Eckersley would say, "The frustrating thing about wireless networks today is that they're everywhere—there can be dozens of them bouncing around you at any given instant — but you're locked out of almost all of them. We realized that the Internet would work much better, and many amazing new kinds of devices would be possible, if just a small fraction of them could be opened. So we started a movement to make that happen."

So the EFF started work on technologies that would "ensure that people have an easy way to share a portion of their bandwidth without affecting the performance of their own network connections while at the same time ensuring that there is absolutely no privacy downside to running an open wireless network."

With the aid of other organizations, the EFF is getting there. Many routers already support guest networks. These include routers from Belkin, D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys If your router doesn't support a guest network, open-source firmware, such as OpenWRT can often be used to add this functionality.

A guest network is exactly what it sounds like. It enables you to share some of your bandwidth to guests while allowing you to keep most of your bandwidth for yourself. Wouldn't do this potentially slow down your own network? Yes, the Open Wireless Movement concedes that is certainly a possibility. In that case, they suggest you  either ban bandwidth hogs or simply revert to a closed network. More advanced guest network firmware also enables you to restict your visitors to only a fraction of your total bandwidth.

If you do elect to offer some of your bandwidth to friends, neighbors, and passers-by, the Movement suggests that you label you Wi-Fi network with the SSID "" In addition they suggest that you use the "Important information about "" networks" policy language on your AP's opening page so that users will understand what's expected of them.

Of course, this open-handed approach to sharing your bandwidth comes with concerns. First, not all ISPs support bandwidth sharing. Many ISPs Terms of Service (ToS) are written broadly and often have sections that prohibit users from running an open wireless network.

Security, of course, is also an issue. But the Open Wireless Movement believes that "If you are running an open network, it is NOT the case that anyone can break into your computer, and you are still, by and large, in a safe situation. If you are running a separate 'guest' network apart from your primary network, you have no reason to worry (

Mind you, if you're foolish enough to run your own systems off the open-network they will be vulnerable to be used and attacked by others. And, needless to say, a malicious user may well try to attack you.

Of course, simply by being on the Internet, you're vulnerable to attacks. Personally, I suspect you're more likely to be hacked by the phishing e-mails and malware that we're constantly exposed to on the Internet.

That said, unless you're a network security expert I wouldn't open even part of your secure business network to the public. But, if you really want to make Wi-Fi freely and easily available to everyone, I can certainly see sharing some of your home Internet connection with others.

To make this idea more practical, I'd like to see the group deliver software and guides to make it easier for technically naïve users to easily and safely share their bandwidth. I can do it, but then I've been a network administrator. This solution has the advantage over "Super Wi-Fi' in that it would help bring truly free Wi-Fi to a lot of people in days rather than years.

Is it ideal? Is it super? No and no. But, Open Wireless would be useful and I, for one, like the idea of sharing resources.

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Topics: Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • One other issue

    How about the scenario where a neighbor uses your router to download child porn? In one case I read where the law busted into a sleeping couple's house and roughed him up. They had tracked him down by SSID and IP address I think. He was eventually released when they discovered their naive mistake.
    • This is what caused me to shut down

      When I was living in Iowa some students at UofI had the FBI bust down the door and take all their computer equipment before finals, because the students were "watching child porn" Turns out they had an open wireless and someone else was doing the dirty.

      After hearing about 2 or 3 more instances of this (you only really remember the first time) I don't think i would ever open up. It is sad though.
      • FBI

        Come on, that's entirely different, and you know it! Had you read the article at all, you'd have noticed these concerns already addressed. It's stupid to openly share your wiireless presence and this artcle describes an idea where all those concerns would be addressed. A 20% share, separate from my own network, is a long ways from sharing the whole thing completely.
        • No, he's right

          The article addresses security issues, and talks about creating a separate guest VLAN. That's fine, you can create guest access, and those people cannot access your PCs.

          The problem that CANNOT EVER be addressed with an open wifi connection is the "child porn" issue, in which someone logs onto your wifi (onto your separate guest VLAN) and downloads child porn -- and YOU get in trouble. That's because both the regular LAN and the guest VLAN both use the same external IP address assigned by your ISP. The ISP is unable to know if the traffic came from your LAN or from the guest VLAN -- it's all just one stream of data to them, all originating from YOUR HOUSE.

          So don't "aw, come on" the issue. Anyone leaving a wifi connection open is asking for serious trouble.
      • Not a shared IP

        you do realise a NEW network is created, using only the same bandwidth as you?
        aka, same internet, 2 different IP's? its not the same as only opening your signal: you are actually able to create a second SSID, provided a different broadcast IP address.

        tip: ZonFon in Portugal already uses this philosophy. (fonera)
        Lorenzo Von Matterhorn
        • Doesn't matter

          If the IP address is registered to you, then YOU go to jail.
    • Another problem

      IF they can break into your router because it is completely open eventually they will be able to get data off your computer. All those passwords in cookies on your browser - or that list you made of passwords so you won't forget.

      Your SSA number from last years tax forms will all be available.

      I guess if I did this I would have to get a separate second wireless router and hide it from the first - so at least one non-wireless router, connecting two wireless routers - what a mess.
      • Completely Open?

        Who said anything about it being "completely open"? Did you even bother to read the article?
    • Perfect

      And you're perfect? Never made a mistake? If you asnwer Yes to that, you're a liar or worse. To denigrate the FBI is one of the most unclassy things an honest citizen can do.
    • Mistake

      ....and this contributes the evolution of society.
  • No sharing please, we're Capitalists.

    I agree completely - sharing would be a very efficient and civilised thing to do.

    Only one problem: the Technology industry is largely controlled by American corporations ... and they are the last people on Earth likely to vote in favour of sharing!
    • All

      Netgear routers have a guest mode built right in.

      What are you talking about - it is up to private individuals to open up their device. I wouldn't recommend it because the FBI might beat down your door when some scum parks out front and downloads child pr0n.
    • Way to misunderstand capitalism

      You see, in capitalism, I get to decide whether or not I share. In your vision of utopia, YOU are going to ORDER me to share. Sorry, I choose the freedom of capitalism. Oh, and just FYI, our nation is less capitalist today than it has ever been, so you blaming all of today's corporate behaviors on capitalism simply demonstrates your inability to think critically.
      • LOL

        "I get to decide whether or not I share."
        No you don't: your ISP decides about network bandwidth; MSFT decides about your OS; the media moguls decide about audio and video ... etc etc etc.

        "YOU are going to ORDER me to share."
        Bollocks. I'm going to INVITE you to share. Well maybe not you!

        "vision of utopia"
        I prefer a balanced reality between Socialism and Capitalism: neither works satisfactorily on its own.

        "I choose the freedom of capitalism,"
        Mindless obedience to THE SYSTEM.

        "our nation is less capitalist today than it has ever been"
        My reading is that IT, Media, Energy, Finance ... etc ... are all increasingly controlled by global corporations engaging in marginally unlawful activities, designed for their own advantage, not ours.

        "blaming all of today's corporate behaviors on capitalism"
        Yes - ish ... but the root is human greed.

        "... demonstrates your inability to think critically."
        • yeah global corps contribute big $

          To politicians for favors. Bush bailed out the airlines and Obama bailed out the automotive industry and the bankers continue to get favors. But yeah, govt is your friend.

          Funny how most people hate millionaires, until they get elected to public office. Then they suddenly become hero's of the middle class.
          • millionaires and the middle class

            Since when did the middle class achieve millionaire status? I can only hope ...
        • Not helping your cause here.

          In capitalism, I get to decide whether or not to share what I own. I don't own what you mentioned. Capitalism also celebrates the freedom of property.

          Yeah, right you are going to invite me. With a big stick in your hand.

          Capitalism works perfectly on its own. Socialism completely fails on its own. I am always amazed at the number of fools who honestly think a government is their friend and not a ravenous beast eager for every more power and control.

          Mindless obedience to the system is your catchphrase. My position is based in reason, historical evidence and an understanding of human nature. Yours is in willful ignorance of all three.

          All those global corporations you cite are in incestuous relationships with governments. You cannot seriously be saying that businesses and corporations are LESS regulated today than 100 years ago.

          Greed vs. self-interest. There is a difference. The real dangers of greed lie in government where you have greed combined with power to imprison or kill. Yet you have been successfully propagandized into thinking a corporation that can do nothing other than offer something to you in trade is more dangerous than a government filled with demonstrably corrupt and power-hungry (greedy for power) men who can put you in jail.
          • Irony

            "I am always amazed at the number of fools who honestly think a government is their friend and not a ravenous beast eager for every more power and control."

            Hmmm. Sounds like Capitalism unfettered by Socialism (the very difference between greed and self-interest) to me.
          • More Irony

            This from someone who calls others naive: "A corporation that can do nothing other than offer something to you in trade"
          • "Capitalism works perfectly on its own"???

            Definitely not. Rivers on fire? Air so polluted you can't breathe? Forests gone? Child labor? Legal child porn? Profit$ over social responsibility? Just a few examples of unbridled capitalism.

            I don't see any suggestion of force or lack of choice in this article.
            Linda Page