Free Wireless for All
The California Zephyr, Amtrak train 6 out of Denver, stopped for about 5 minutes this morning at the tiny little station of Osceola, Iowa. It was just enough time for me to turn my wireless on, surf around for an unsecured network with a good signal, and check my email, the weather radar, and this morning’s news – all before we quickly chugged out of town and the connection dropped. But it was all the time I needed to get a few critical things done that I don’t typically do on my Blackberry. (Thank you, Belkin_51_Wireless of Osceola!) I told Ron how happy I was to be able to do this, and he mentioned that this was a good example of why he’s thinking about unsecuring his personal network – so he can contribute to this pool of “random acts of kindness”.
Sharing wireless is a perfect example of doing something for personal good (installing a wireless network in your house) which can also contribute to the good of society (making the network unsecured so strangers can use it when they’re passing through). Like any other sociotechnical system described by Brian Whitworth, for a “free wireless for all” system to be sustainable, you’d like for those strangers to be good citizens who don’t commit anti-social acts of sabotage in response to your generosity. Cybersecurity experts might have a fit thinking about such risky behavior (as you can tell, I’m not one of them and so haven’t thought through these implications at all).
I don’t mind if my neighbors use my wireless network. In fact, sometimes (when my router has been down) I’ve even used theirs to Google for information so I can get my system up and running again. (Thanks Steve). Without this emergency capability, I would have been sunk.
OK – so a wireless sharing strategy is not technically free wireless for all. Many people would still be paying for their connections. But people who would pay for internet access anyway can help bridge the digital divide, even if that divide is caused not by socioeconomic differences, but spatial differences – like one person just being away from their home turf for a little while. The big loser here would be the service providers (because a group of neighbors could even negotiate to split the cost of monthly service). But what’s more important – broadening access to information, or padding the profit margins? Of course the answer to this question is relative, but in an atmosphere of economic crisis, now is the time to start brainstorming solutions in terms of non-traditional variables other than money.
Open wireless access points certainly are convenient. Just a note: I wouldn’t open an access point at home without first locking things down (and maybe controlling bandwidth).