A West Coast view of Wi-Fi… Broadband wireless changes the way you think about accessing the net and can even change lives. Richard Baguley reports from San Francisco, giving us an insight into the type of thing we can expect over here in a few months...
There's a strange thrill to checking your email in bed. Or wherever else you happen to be. When I first installed an 802.11b wireless network in my house, I spent several days wandering around, browsing websites in the bathroom and grabbing my email in the garden on my laptop computer - and giggling with delight.
Even though it's the same old internet, it feels strangely liberating to be able to get it from wherever you happen to be at the time. It puts you back in control of the experience. Now my wife and I hardly think about it as we use our DSL connection wherever we happen to be at home.
And we aren't alone. Here in the US more and more internet users are realising the benefits of wireless access, both at work and at home. It's nothing short of a revolution that is changing the way many people think about being online.
Although it started as a way for individuals to make their own internet access easier, it has since grown into something else, from individuals sharing their connection to entire communities who go wireless when the telephone company isn't interested in helping them.
San Francisco resident Cliff Skolnick set up a wireless network access point in his house so he could access the internet in his local coffee shop but now he lets anyone in the area use the connection as well (as long as they follow some simple rules - see here).
And there are plenty of users who share their internet connections with anybody in range this way. One of the websites www.nodedb.com that hold lists of open access points lists 47 in the San Francisco bay area. Other groups are getting together to set up co-operatives that offer internet access, such as the Western Sonoma County Internet Co-operative, which offers wireless internet access in an area where DSL is not easily available.
And if there aren't any free access points nearby, it's not difficult to find somewhere you can buy access. The mobile network operator T-Mobile now offers a service where you can buy wireless internet access. The access points are located in over 2,000 Starbucks coffee shops and Borders bookstores all over the US. And it's not overly expensive: prices range from 10 cents a minute to $30 a month for unlimited use.
It's also very convenient. You can barely turn a corner in most major cities in the US without seeing a Starbucks. Plus, burger chain McDonalds is now also testing its own wireless internet service: buy a meal in branches in any one of three US cities and you get an hour of internet use for free. The number of McDonalds offering the service is planned to rise to 300 by the end of 2003.
Other companies offer similar services. Boingo Wireless www.boingo.com (set up by Earthlink founder Sky Dayton) offers internet access at various cafés, airports and other locations. The way this company works is also interesting: the locations that offer the service buy the 'hot spot in a box' kit and Boingo pays them a fee when users connect to the internet through them. That means the more people that use the service, the more money the location makes.
The dark side of wireless
But going wireless does have its dark side. When you move from getting the internet over a piece of copper to radio waves, you are may well be letting anybody within radio range in on the act. And it is surprising how many people don't seem to realise this.
When I took a walk around the South of Market district of San Francisco with a PDA with an 802.11b wireless card running a copy of the wireless network spotting program NetStumbler (www.netstumbler.com) I found over 30 wireless networks within five minutes. And the frightening thing was that around a third of these didn't seem to be secured in any way. The wireless routers were running in their default configurations, without encryption and not blocking unauthorised users. With a couple of mouse clicks, I could have been accessing the networks or using their attached internet connections.
In fact, many people make a hobby of driving around neighbourhoods looking for wireless networks. It is a hobby known as 'war-driving' or 'drive-by hacking'. By adding a GPS receiver, war-drivers can create a database of the location and name of wireless networks, and there are websites that store this data and allow anyone to search it to see what wireless networks are out there. I've tried it myself on my commute. In my 45 minute drive from work, I discovered over 100 wireless networks along the major highway that is my route home and I have no doubt there are plenty more waiting to be found.
And it's also surprisingly easy to sniff these wireless networks and see exactly what is being transmitted. Programs like Airopeek (from www.wildpackets.com)or AirMagnet (www.airmagnet.com) make it easy to catch the packets of wireless data as they fly through the ether and analyse them, so you can reconstruct what users are doing. You can see what websites they are looking at, and even read their email. These programs are designed to help with installing and testing wireless networks but they also allow you to tap into existing unprotected networks.
Many networks use WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) which hides the data as it is transmitted by encrypting it but this doesn't provide complete security. A professor and two students at the University of Berkeley have demonstrated several ways to break the encryption used by WEP and read the data being transmitted.
The revolution will be radio-based
The rapid and fairly widespread adoption of 802.11b wireless internet access in the US has surprised many people but the reasons for it aren't difficult to understand. It makes things easier, allowing the installation of one device to get a lot of people online at once.
It's also fast and convenient. And with the price of access points and wireless network cards - or even integrated radio chips - getting lower all the time, this particular revolution has only just begun.
For all our Wi-Fi coverage, see this www.silicon.com/wi-fi.