Free wireless Internet access, the not-so-legal way

WirelessIt feels like a bit of an old topic. It’s been discussed many times before, and the outcome is pretty much always: be cautious. Don’t steal someone else’s Internet access. Depending on where you live, it could be a criminal offense to just jump onto an unprotected home wi-fi router and connect to the ‘Net. And, since you’re using someone else’s resources – presumably without their knowledge and consent – we’re told it’s just plain not very nice.

The other piece of advice that always goes with this is for anyone who has high-speed Internet access and uses a wireless router/access point to distribute it to various laptops, desktops and devices around the home: protect your network. Most wireless routers these days are trivial to set up, and their manuals make it child’s play to enable WEP/WPA, so there’s really no excuse for not practicing safe wi-fi.

And there’s the rub: unless you don’t want to – or can’t be bothered. In which case, my personal opinion is that anyone can jump on your ‘public’ network because you’ve made it fair game to do so. Again – in my personal opinion – I think you’ve made your network into just another node in an increasingly accessible wireless infrastructure that’s pretty pervasive, especially in large cities, especially in North America.

Being in a public spot in downtown Toronto (as I am right now), somewhere where there are lots of high-rise condo and office buildings, you really shouldn’t have to pay for wireless Internet access. Your challenge is more about where you are located physically and whether you have a high-enough, open-enough vantage point so that you’re within range of unprotected networks (most of which are residential).

There’s a slight security concern about making your traffic go through someone else’s network, of course. My sense is that you have three primary factors in your favour:

  1. 90% of the time, your ‘provider’ won’t know you’re using his or her network.
  2. Home routers are notoriously poor at logging network activities or data packets moving through them (and those are are good at it are operated by people who really know what they’re doing, and those people wouldn’t not protect their wireless networks)
  3. If someone isn’t protecting their wireless network, there’s about a 50% chance they’re okay with it being used by anonymous users.

Now for the question of what’s okay and what’s not. We don’t want to get our ‘provider’ in trouble, and we don’t want to get in trouble ourselves. So here are some suggestions of what not to do when leeching wi-fi access:

  • Download or upload gratuitous quantities of software, music or movies
  • Use weird peer-to-peer protocols
  • Download/upload porn or other materials for which someone could (maybe) get in trouble with their own access provider.

I think that using ‘borrowed’ networking time for email, surfing, reading/writing blogs, etc. is perfectly fine (note that I’m not giving you advice here or telling you what to do; I’m just saying what I think). These activities generate very low impact traffic that can easily piggyback on someone’s network without affecting them. If it gets too much for them, they can turn your access off by simply protecting their network. Until then, I am silently thankful to be borrowing their connection and respectful of their privacy, ethics and risks.

While I can’t comment on other cities, here in Toronto, the alternatives are pretty bad. The only ‘pervasive’ wireless network provider (in other words, not hot-spot based) in the downtown core is One Zone by Toronto Hydro Telecom. And that’s just brutal. Unreliable. Works only half the time (if that). Doesn’t work high up. Doesn’t work low down. Doesn’t work in areas that its own map says should work. Doesn’t work when there are a lot of people on it. Doesn’t work with good equipment. Doesn’t work with so-so equipment. It’s just not worth the money they’re asking for it: something like $30 per month, or day rates of around $10.

Wireless Toronto, on the other hand, is very cool: free wireless, simple rules, lots of access points. Sadly, I’m not really a ‘coffee house’ kind of guy, so the idea of seeking out a specific location to do my surfing doesn’t always work for me. But conceptually, I’m there. If it were pervasive, I’d pay for it under some co-op agreement – its politics are solid and its technology works a lot better than One Zone’s.

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