Monday, July 30, 2007

WiFi in the Balkans

For some time I've known that there is WiFi all over the place here (such an easy-to-remember name when compared to 802.11). However, using an iPhone really brings it home. Whenever I look something up while out of range of my usual networks (and let's face it, I wouldn't have bought an iPhone if I weren't going to be using it all the time) I get a list of anything from 3 to a dozen networks all within range. And this doesn't consider the networks that aren't being broadcast (though I don't think many people use this option). With the exception of the occasional commercial access system (give us your credit card details and we'll let you in), then all of these access points are locked.

Many people have unlimited, or virtually unlimited, high speed internet access, and they're all attaching these wireless gateways to them. These access points then overlap tremendously in range, causing interference with each other, and slowing each other down. This seems like massive duplication to me. Add to this the fact that most of these networks spend the majority of their time idle, and the pointlessness of the situation is even more frustrating.

I'm not advocating grid networking (I'm skeptical that the technology has the algorithms to efficiently route the massive amount of data it would need to deal with). However, it would seem that if the network were configured such that access point owners could open up their access points and let everyone on, then everyone would benefit. Some points would get more traffic than others, but overall it should even out. Coming from this perspective I can understand why so many cities have looked at providing this service, and why Google decided to roll it out in Mountain View.

Many of the advantages are obvious. More efficient usage of the airwaves (fewer mid-air packet collisions), ubiquitous urban access, and less infrastructure cost to the community as a whole.

Unfortunately, I can see the downside too. It would have to be paid for by the community, rather than the individual. The total cost would be much less than is being paid now (by each individual, with their own access point and their own internet connection), but the money still has to come from somewhere. It may not be much in a city budget, but there are always those who don't feel they need to pay extra taxes for services they don't use. I disagree with this view, but my opinion has no impact on voters, and by extension, my opinions have no influence with politicians.

I can also see the authorities having a hissy fit over it. It's trivial to use the internet anonymously (3 coffee shops within a block of here have free WiFi - not to mention more technical solutions), but ignorance or laziness of most people still allow the police, and others, to track down people of interest. The fact that this kind of tracking can be circumvented, or even redirected to someone innocent is of little consequence here. Those who want to find people engaging in certain activities on the internet would not want to allow universal anonymous access, especially in this age of post-911 paranoia. Authorized (and identified) access is not really feasible in this situation, as it would be nearly impossible to roll out and enforce, and easily circumvented. So the easy solution is just prevent people from having ubiquitous community-sponsored WiFi.

The legal framework for some of these restrictions is already being set up in some jurisdictions. Many concerns are currently around accessing private (sometimes download limited) networks, but as these concerns are removed with the promise of ubiquitous "free" access, then other reasons will be cited.

Even more influential than law enforcement (in this country) are the network providers. These companies have already tried to prevent cities from rolling out ubiquitous WiFi. They are obviously scared it will threaten their business model. I don't really care too much, as they are already being paid a lot of money for under utilized service (all those redundant lines not being used to their capacity), and abuse their market in many other ways as well. Like many other large companies, they are unwilling to try to keep up with their market, preferring to shape the market to their own desires. This works in the short term, but history shows it is doomed to failure in the long run.

In the meantime, I'll continue to use EDGE on my iPhone, and wish that my previous phone hadn't died before Apple brought out a model that included 3G.

I'm struggling to stay awake while I type. Does it show?

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