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The real way to free Wi-Fi

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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 "openwireless.org." In addition they suggest that you use the "Important information about "openwireless.org" 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 (https://openwireless.org/#/isps).

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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