Shared Community WiFi Networking Blog From A Toronto Co-op ISP

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

WiFi liberator? Or WiFi invader?

From BoingBoing: Share closed WiFi with the Wifi Liberator

"Wifi Liberator lets you retransmit the pay-for-use WiFi at airports and cafes to your friends for free; it's an art-project from Jonah Brucker-Cohen:
Wifi Liberator is an open-source toolkit for a laptop computer that enables its user to "liberate" pay-per-use wireless networks and create a free, open node that anyone can connect to for Internet access. The project is presented as a challenge to existing corporate or "locked" private wireless nodes to encourage the proliferation of free networks and connectivity across the planet."
A very interesting piece of software,and some interesting ideas behind it.

However, a couple of points I think are definitely worth some critical examination:

1. If paid networks are destroyed, there could easily be no correlation in an increase in free access networks. If the people in control can make money for something, it likely won't happen. Free access WiFi has all kinds of problems and advantages, from a legal perspective, technical perspective (network administrators don't like other people using their network), and business perspective (free access WiFi still cost money to provide, and people using chairs and tables are taking up space, and there may or may not be a correlation to increased revenue from that use of space).

2. Running WiFi access points with decent Internet connectivity, access control, and some sort of billing system to allow those who want the system to be able to pay for it (assuming it is not to be a tax on coffee, like many café WiFi models) is not especially cheap or easy. Sure, many volunteer groups do it, but all the community wireless groups either assume or accept that the best/only way to pay for the Internet conductivity is to have a venue pay for it from revenue obtained from selling something else. If you want to have a billing system, that means you need security, and customer support. Security and customer support can be very expensive, compared to the basic cost of WiFi hardware. There's much to debate about the different ways of obtaining sufficient resources to allow an Internet connection to a location and a functional and reliable WiFi sharing system at that same location -- surely, however, the entire concept of paid access cannot be entirely wrong. Hardly anybody complains about having to pay for Internet access at their home or business, and it is basically the same idea.

3. Internet access will not be the same as the air we breathe. Air is a natural resource, existing outside of human ingenuity and effort. The Internet, however, is a massive engineering project created by thousands of hard-working and very clever technicians, supported by a huge number of entrepreneurs, accounting and legal professionals, visionary philosophers and academics, and, content-wise, just about everybody on the planet that has a connection. the "air we breathe" is not a physical human construct, and would do pretty well without any future human involvement (mostly, we destroy the air we breathe with pollution...). The Internet, in contrast, is not a natural resource with a physical embodiment existing outside of human effort; nor is it a static construct, like the great pyramids in Egypt, that can just sit there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Keeping the Internet going requires a huge amount of human input, and that's not even talking about improving the Internet! Dynamic machines like cars and computers need guidance and maintenance, and skilled human labor is one of the most expensive things around.

That said, it's obviously stupid to charge $10 an hour to have someone check their e-mail. It is not economically efficient, even though it might make the service provider quite a bit of money. Hotels exploit their captive audiences, and rip them off for Internet access charges. Still, one or two dollars an hour is probably a reasonable rate, and one that I think a lot of people would consider fair if they really thought about it. The old saying that "if it's worth using, it's worth paying for" has some truth in it -- of course, it doesn't say how much should be paid as a practical measurement or what would be actually fair today, but it might be a good start to counteract what in many ways is a dream of free Internet access, based on some questionable assumptions. Still, the next time I have to pay $10 to connect to the Internet for one hour, I will definitely give this software try, and maybe do a bit of good while doing so.



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