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Whose bandwidth is being given away?

By Paul McNamara on Thu, 01/10/08 - 9:59am.

Security guru Bruce Schneier is certain to kick up a lively discussion today with his essay in Wired extolling the virtues of wide-open home wireless networks.

I'm not going to quibble with him on the security aspects of unprotected Wi-Fi, but I will take exception on another point in a moment. First, Schneier writes:

Whenever I talk or write about my own security setup, the one thing that surprises people - and attracts the most criticism - is the fact that I run an open wireless network at home. There's no password. There's no encryption. Anyone with wireless capability who can see my network can use it to access the internet.

To me, it's basic politeness. Providing internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea. But to some observers, it's both wrong and dangerous.

Schneier spends most of the piece addressing the security concerns associated with having an unsecured wireless home network. In short, he argues that the risks are minimal - both to the network and legally - and that those risks are easily outweighed by the benefits of an open net.

Reasonable people can disagree.

But it's on the point of ISP terms of service that I believe Schneier's case falls. First, he expresses no concern whatsoever about others stealing his bandwidth from his open networks - "pay it forward," he suggests. But then he notes:

Certainly this does concern ISPs. Running an open wireless network will often violate your terms of service. But despite the occasional cease-and-desist letter and providers getting pissy at people who exceed some secret bandwidth limit, this isn't a big risk either. The worst that will happen to you is that you'll have to find a new ISP.

But bandwidth isn't the only issue here, at least not from the ISP's standpoint; it's lost revenue. The reason ISP terms of service forbid customers from sharing bandwidth with neighbors is as much or more about the provider's need to turn a buck as it is the finite nature of the product.

And we need not stray too far to find the appropriate analogy: cable TV.

I've got Verizon FiOS at my house, which (when it works) means bandwidth to beat the band. Plenty to go around the neighborhood, should I choose to follow Schneier's altruistic path. But if providing my neighbors with free wireless Internet access is OK, why not cable TV service? Oh, sure, that would be technically more challenging (beyond me, actually) but certainly not impossible and just about perfect for this academic exercise.

Does anyone want to argue that two or three families paying a single cable bill is OK? Maybe a dozen in an apartment building? (And I mean argue other than on the grounds that cable providers are greed-heads; we're talking right and wrong here.)

Seems to me you'd have to mount that argument in order to climb aboard Schneier's bandwidth-for-all bandwagon.

Ah, but I hear the free-for-all advocates saying, "We aren't talking about that level of extracurricular network sharing; it's only for the weary traveler, 'emergencies' and outages."

Says who? If your net is open it's open.

"Steal this Wi-Fi" is the headline on Schneier's column.

Well, whose Wi-Fi is it being stolen?

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