A Wireless End Run Around ISPs


Writing a book at home can be isolating, so London author Ben Hammersley set up a simple wireless access node in his office window so he could surf the Web from the café opposite his house. Like many civic-minded techies, Hammersley was happy to share his connection. The problem: How to let everyone in his South Kensington neighborhood know that an ultrafast wireless broadband connection, known as Wi-Fi, was available and free to use?

Hammersley printed up fliers and stuffed them under his neighbors' doors. But the network remained largely unused -- even though anyone close by could simply log on if their PC or laptop were set up for wireless access.

Then, on June 24, Hammersley's friend, information architect Matt Jones, posted a set of rune-like symbols to his Web site designed to alert Internet users when and where wireless broadband was available. The idea: Create a set of international road signs to the Internet. Two half-moons chalked on a pavement or a wall indicate that a connection is available. A full circle informs would-be surfers that the node is closed.

PIONEERING GRAFFITI. Jones dubbed the symbols "warchalks," a play on "wardriving" or "warwalking," which refers to people who toot around cities with special software designed to sniff out open wireless nodes. (And the term "wardriving" derives from "wardialing," a word coined in the classic 1983 sci-fi thriller WarGames starring Matthew Broderick.)

"The whole problem with wireless networking is that you can't find a wireless access node without being online in the first place," says Hammersley. "Warchalking reminded me of when I was Boy Scout and we lay twigs in a certain configuration on the path to direct people to water. This seemed an elegant way of solving the problem."

At 10:50 a.m., Hammersley headed out and scratched two half moons on the wall of his house. He also snapped a digital picture of his work and zipped it over to Jones. Hammersley had become the first "warchalker."

Within an hour, news of the symbols quickly spread across the Internet. Jones received 60,000 hits to his Web site and Hammersley's Web log, an online journal, was a top link on ultrapopular, ultrageek site Slashdot.org and top portals for graphic designers. By the weekend, Jones had received news -- and photo evidence -- of warchalkers from Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Seattle, even from the CIO of the state of Utah. "We're joking that a piece of chalk could destroy the entire multibillion-pound 3G [third-generation wireless] industry," laughs Jones, who admits he has been caught off guard by all the attention.

PRINGLES ANTENNA. But this could be anything but a joke. Whether or not warchalking takes off, the attention it has garnered underscores the excitement -- and potential -- of community wireless networks. Using increasingly common Wi-Fi technology based on the 802.11b wireless standard, these networks deliver data at blazing speeds (see BW Online, 4/1/02, "Welcome to Wi-Fi World"). Moreover, you don't need special and often expensive equipment to surf the Net over Wi-Fi. Enthusiasts can buy an antenna for as little as $50, plus wireless software. More creative techies have turned a Pringles can or a piece of tinfoil into a working antenna.

Part of what makes Wi-Fi so sexy is that it's decidedly low-tech. But that's also its power -- and the reason many telecom carriers make it illegal to share your broadband signal. Just as Napster changed the monopolistic music industry by making it easier and essentially free to obtain music, Wi-Fi could rip apart the burgeoning broadband industry, a duopoly of established cable and telecom companies, by replacing last-mile connectivity with last-acre connectivity.

"The telecom industries are addicted to the one-wire, one-customer philosophy, which means that growth in use directly equates with growth in direct user fees," warns Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University and an expert in network economics. "If it suddenly becomes easy to share broadband with anyone within a [1,000 foot] range, then, as with Napster, you have quickly and easily lowered coordination costs. And it's only coordination costs that make it possible for the big guys to make money off each and every user."

BLANKETING MANHATTAN. The grassroots movement for community wireless broadband was growing long before warchalking. Nonprofit groups, such as NYC Wireless and Personal Telco in Portland, Ore., have been rallying volunteers to set up free networks in major U.S. metropolitan cities for more than a year. NYC Wireless already has set up 100 free wireless spots in New York -- 50 in Manhattan alone. Its latest, an open network in that borough's Bryant Park, was unveiled on June 25.

NYC Wireless spokesperson Anthony Townsend says at this rate, the group will cover the entire island with free high-speed signals within 18 months. "Our progress shows that well-capitalized companies spending billions of dollars isn't the only way to get us to 3G. Free wireless networks cover large parts of major cities with faster service than is offered by traditional players," Townsend says.

Community groups aren't the only ones backing the technology. Utah CIO Phil Windley plans to place warchalking signs to promote wireless networks available for the state's 22,000 employees in more than 250 buildings. He's also planning to place the signs when he deploys Wi-Fi access points at roadside restaurants and other isolated places where police hang out, allowing them to connect to the Net during their shifts.

"CEASE AND DESIST." The momentum behind wireless networks is raising tough questions for broadband providers who could see revenues plummet if one $50 connection can serve an entire community. On June 25, Time Warner Cable sent a dozen "cease and desist" letters to customers it says were publicly instructing others about how to share broadband connections on the NYC Wireless site.

The letter warned that setting up an open wireless network violated Time Warner's service agreement and requested that customers send written assurance within three business days that the service would not be used in illegal ways. Without such confirmation, Time Warner said it would suspend service and pursue legal remedies. (Hammersley says his sharing is legal under the terms of the line-lease agreement with his provider.)

Time Warner isn't alone. AT&T Broadband, which boasts 1.6 million high-speed Internet customers, also has sent out teams to scour for broadband sharers. If they stumble across an open signal, AT&T officials cross-reference the Internet address with global-positioning-satellite data to determine if the signal comes from an AT&T customer.

SELLING POINT. AT&T spokeswoman Sarah Eder says the company is carefully weighing whom to prosecute. A user who shares bandwidth with a few friends in his garden may not garner much attention. But someone who tries to resell his connection to others will have his service suspended. Both AT&T and Time Warner maintain that cracking down on broadband sharing isn't a major issue, but it's one they'll keep an eye on as the technology develops.

In contrast, many independent broadband providers see promoting wireless broadband sharing as a selling point. SpeakEasy.net, a national Internet service provider based in Seattle doesn't prohibit users from sharing, though a company official says if too much sharing harms the network, it will be investigated.

Manhattan DSL provider Bway.net actually promotes Wi-Fi community access as a value-added service for customers. Joe Plotkin, Bway.net's director of marketing, says it's wrong for mainstream cable and DSL providers to expect consumers to pay for connections at home and then not use them all day. "If someone buys DSL from us, and they want to set up a wireless network so their friends can use it, that doesn't make them bad customers," he says. Bway.net plans to launch its own free wireless network in Manhattan's Soho district later this summer.

WARWINDOW. All of which makes warchalking so exciting to Wi-Fi enthusiasts and so threatening to broadband providers. Though critics laugh off the crude chalk symbols -- what happens when it rains? -- the development of an international code for open Wi-Fi networks is one more step toward the popularization of broadband wireless.

Warchalking pioneer Hammersley reports that on July 1, when it rained for the first time in a week, his chalk scrawl remained visible. But just in case, he also printed the symbols and stuck them on his window, sending out a welcome message to other broadband citizens -- and a warning to incumbent providers. By Jane Black in New York


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