Wireless freenets challenge corporate dominance

Ian Howard dreams of a day when everyone will have access to free high-speed Internet through wireless technology — at next to no cost.

The UNIX systems administrator at the University of Waterloo is part of a movement to take

high-speed Internet infrastructure out of the hands of giant corporations and give it over to computer users. He started the Waterloo Wireless-Freenet in mid-January, one of two such networks now operating in the southern Ontario college city. He was so fed up with how service providers like Bell Sympatico and Rogers operated, he felt it was time for someone to rattle the cage.

“”Both of these companies have reputations for being not very good with customers, and bludgeoning customers as far as the rates are concerned,”” he says. “”So these freenets are starting to develop because there isn’t an alternative. They give people the ability to run their own service without having to rely on one of these oligopolies.””

Howard’s guerilla network is akin to an Internet version of cable and satellite TV descrambling that went on in the 1980s, when pay-TV users used pirated chip boards to bypass paying their monthly service fees. The only difference here is that all the technology needed to pull free high-speed wireless Internet off is perfectly legal. At least, so far.

According to Howard, all you need to buy is an 802.11 or Wi-Fi Ethernet card that slides into the back of your computer, along with a wireless AccessPoint or hub antenna. Total price at your local Future Shop or Radio Shack? Roughly $450.

From there, you can set up your laptop, PC or even your personal digital assistant to tap into a high-speed cable or DSL network operated by the cable or telephone companies.

If you have neighbours with a Wi-Fi card in their computers, they, too, might be able to hop onto your AccessPoint. If you’re really business savvy, you could form a co-op and charge $10 or $20 a month — significantly less than broadband providers.

Personaltelco.net, the de-facto homepage for the homegrown wireless Internet community, lists four Canadian wireless freenets in operation: one in Toronto, one in Vancouver, and the two in Waterloo. Howard says he also knows of people planning to set up their own free wireless networks in Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, and feels it won’t be long before they turn up in every major Canadian city and many small towns.

Howard also points to a Web site/mailing list based in Halifax, Canada Wireless, whose founders are trying to get the federal government to look at these networks as a serious alternative to placing broadband in rural and remote communities.

Some villages in Canada’s North “”don’t have the population density to support the deployment of a co-axial (Internet) cable,”” he says. “”So there’s a huge possibility here for places that currently don’t have the infrastructure to have high-speed Internet access.””

The problem? Such wireless freenets would mean lost residential revenue for the cable and telephone companies, who helped build broadband in the first place.

While Andrew Cole, a spokesperson for Bell Sympatico, says that the company is keeping an eye on the situation, it also isn’t too concerned these grassroots wireless networks will take off.

“”Ultimately, the type of DSL service we provide is dedicated,”” says Cole. “”You’re getting it for yourself because you want it to be fast and you want it to be secure. There are some concerns with security (with wireless freenets), and it’s also limited in range as well.””

The big security concern has to do with a hacker phenomena called war driving. People in areas like London, U.K. and New York City drive around in their cars with a laptop and a radio frequency antenna — which can be made from Pringles chip cans or old coffee tins — hoping to nab a wireless Internet signal. Once they do, the encryption on these signals is usually so weak that these hackers can use software available on the Net to “”listen in”” on e-mail conversations.

However, Howard feels that, as more people go wireless, the signal-to-noise ratio will increase and offer some level of protection.

“”The more people who use it, the more data will be flying around on the radio waves,”” he says. “”When there’s thousands of people broadcasting, it gets more difficult for someone to discern a particular person’s traffic.””

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