Wireless internet is bustin' out all over the place, and it's a brave new world for urbanites. The next generation of wireless base stations are "bridging routers," they can be used to extend the range of an existing wireless network. They will enable something I call the Meshnet, at least in high-density areas: many users, transparently sharing multiple broadband connections to the internet.
Users who, by the very nature of cities, networks, and the vagaries of WiFi, typically have no idea who their fellow 'netters are. Until they start watching the packet stream, anyway...
Can large groups of anonymous people transparently share anything as private as a network connection?
A friend of mine is thinking of ditching his DSL connection. "I don't think I need it anymore," he told me recently. "I can pick up someone else's access point in my apartment.
"I mean, I should find out who it is, maybe split the cost. But then... I'm not sure how I would do that. Or if they would be comfortable with it. Maybe they don't know it's open?"
There are probably twenty-four different apartments that the signal could be originating from, some in adjacent buildings. Should he knock on doors? Post a sign on a lamppost? Drop a Readme note on his benefactor's unsecured desktop? Or just keep using the access on the sly and hope for the best?
Clearly there needs to be an established etiquette, a social interface to amateur packet trading. Unfortunately, no "talk" system is built into the protocol, and until third-generation access points arrive with built-in intranet websites for posting MOTDs and access policies (or explicit No Trespassing signs) users may be left assuming that its okay to piggyback on a neighbor's connection. After all, what are they going to do about it?
Without access control, and no wireless router has decent access control at this point, the bullies can really have a field day: flooding the network with packets (aka, dosing the router, I love that term) or downloading reams of kiddie porn on your dime. I imagine a whole subculture of private detectives that specialize in tracking down the owners of problem MAC addresses and telling their parents to take away the computer or face legal action.
But these are problems that dialup providers, universities, and large companies already face. They're practically mundane. The revolutionary thing about WiFi, and particularly about the ease of stringing multiple access points onto one hardline connection, is that it brings the classic internet cloud inside the firewall for the average user. When you plug-in an access point in an apartment building, you become an ISP.
And if you and I are ISPs, then what do we need RoadRunner for? Or rather, would it be cheaper for us to band together as an Access Co-Op and share a fiber connection? Repeaters on the rooftops would allow such an enterprise to reach a considerable number of subscribers: there must be around 200 households on this block. How many of them already pay $20 a month for dialup access? Or $30 for broadband? Such a Co-Op may never happen, but this is why geeks get really excited by WiFi: even if the cable company goes under, there will be options.
It will be fun to watch the economics of this play out. Will the leeches bog down the system? Or do people who have the money to spend on WiFi equipment enjoy the feeling of generosity they get from running their own little corner of the Meshnet? "I need broadband," the thinking goes, "And I usually have bandwidth to spare. Why not give it away?"
It's a more enlightened approach than Starbucks takes.
By Psydeshow on January 9, 2003 at 7:12pm