"Stealing Wi-Fi" isn't about Wi-Fi

Helen Rubenstein wants everyone to be neighborly

The New York Times has an Op-Ed "contribution" from Helen Rubenstein, who fondly reminisces about how, for years, she piggybacked on her neighbors unsecured Wi-Fi connection to tackle her first freelance writing assignments, file her taxes, stream episodes of "Friday Night Lights," and, "speedily reply to student e-mails, video-chat with my sister, keep abreast of the latest literary hoo-ha, 'like' as many of my friends’ Facebook posts as I liked and learn all about lentil-sprouting or Prometheus whenever the mood struck."

Just using your neighbor's network to be, you know, be an all-around active digital citizen.

None of her many neighbors in Brooklyn locked access to their home Wi-Fi router. Therefore, they must have wanted Helen to use it. Nothing could be more obvious, right?

Helen makes a few fundemental errors in her Op-Ed, but then she teaches writing, not networking, at Brooklyn College. I've made errors myself, and willl make a lot more (failing to know that I could apply the Pythagorean Theorem to compute display-screen pixel density earned me the accolade of "Jackass of the Week" from DaringFireball's John Gruber, for example).

Helen seems not to realize that when she connects to her neighbors Wi-Fi router, she's not stealing Wi-Fi. What she's stealing is the neighbor's broadband connection to the Internet. Which the neighbor pays for. And Helen doesn't.

But she never thought of it as stealing. When the Wi-Fi router she'd relied on suddenly was locked, "I realized how lucky I’d been all those years, having that tremendous body of information and awesome communication technology at my fingertips, all basically free. It may have been unfair, but I don’t believe I was stealing: the owners’ leaving their networks password-free was essentially a gift, an ethereal gesture of kindness." (I really appreciate that parsing: it was "unfair" but not "stealing." What could be more neighborly than that? Maybe it's a New York City thing.)

I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing a lot of people who bother to pay for Internet access probably lack even a computer enthusiast's knowledge of security, meaning they don't know their connection is insecure, don't know how to secure it, thought they had secured it, or are hoping that someone like Helen, in her own ethereal gesture of kindness, would refrain from violating their privacy and pirating their Internet access.

But Helen is certain she knows what her neighbors are thinking. "Sometimes I’d imagine my anonymous benefactors, those people behind Netgear 1 or belkin54g, thinking, 'Well, I have Internet to spare.' And, really, who doesn’t? Home wireless networks can usually support five or more computers, yet there are only about 1.4 computers per American household."

Helen is still a bit confused here, again conflating "Wi-Fi" and "Internet." A home wireless network, meaning an actual wireless LAN, based on 802.11n with 80-100+ Mbps, probably can handle considerably more than five computers (and there may only be 1.4 computers per household, but likely the household has more than 1 Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone, a wireless game console, an iPad or other tablet, not to mention wirelessly attached storage, media servers, and printers). So a 1.5-3 Mbps connection to the Internet is a much, much smaller data pipe. Which is going to get filled with all those "Friday Night Lights" episodes, videochatting, and friending frenzy, especially if Helen's other neighbors follow her example of accepting the sucker's (or "benefactor's) ethereal gesture of kindness.

Helen probably lacks the technical knowledge to hack a home wireless network, assuming her neighbor actually has one, which is probably a good thing. Helen probably would imagine her anonymous benefactors thinking, "Well, I have hard drive space, or files, or emails or confidential information, or savings to spare." And, really, who doesn't?

Helen, being an academic, seems to believe there really is a free lunch. "In an ideal world, the Internet would be universally available to anyone able to receive it," she says. I have to admit that in my own ideal world, universal Internet access would be quite a bit lower down on the priority list. "Promisingly, the Federal Communications Commission in September announced that it would open up unused analog airwaves for high-speed public wireless use, which could lead to gratis hotspots spreading across cities and through many rural areas," Helen enthuses.

Let but the FCC pronouce and millions of gratis hotspots will blossom, like wildflowers: naturally, abundantly, over hill and dale and urban canyons, antennas quivering and questing.

But, given Helen's full schedule of online activities, it's unlikely she'll be the one installing them, gratis. Which means some guy in a truck has to do it, stringing cable, adjusting the antenna, configuring the AP (though he can probably skip the security features in this case), making sure there's adequate backhaul and that there actually is a network infrastructure for the AP to connect back to, customer support, network management, all that stuff. Stuff that costs money and has to be paid for.

But not by Helen, who relies on her neighbors' etheral kindness.

She concludes her winsome reflection on Internet availability this way: "Perhaps the solution is a simple, old-fashioned gesture. Just knock on a neighbor’s door, and ask if she might be able to spare some wireless"

Except Helen didn't do that. She just assumed that her neighbor had wireless and Internet to spare and wanted Helen to help herself.

I can understand wanting something for nothing. But I'd pay to be there when Helen does knock on her Brooklyn neighbor's door, and actually asks "Do you mind if I borrow the Internet connection you're paying for, and I'd rather not?"

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