The Open Wireless Movement and the push for alternative methods of internet access

BY Rachael Stelly
July 9, 2014

Not too long ago, people were frantic about the FCC’s alleged promise to provide free WiFi to everyone. While this myth was quickly debunked, recent developments suggest that although the elusive promise of free WiFi everywhere currently remains unattainable, the way people access the Internet may look quite different in the foreseeable future.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has recently revealed to Wired that it plans to release open-source firmware this month that will enable willing participants to share a portion of their personal WiFi network as part of EFF’s Open Wireless Movement. The firmware will give users explicit control over the amount of data usage and bandwidth available, the ability to turn sharing on or off, and, with the assistance of an inexpensive router, keep their personal usage separate from the shared network.

As an incentive to participate in the movement, EFF argues that its software is security-audited, more convenient and secure than “buggy default firmware in typical Netgear and Linsksys devices” and will allow users to check for and quickly download updates on the web interface. This is supplemental to the previous, less compelling argument circulated by Bruce Schneier that sharing your wireless is “basic politeness” mentioned by Wired.

This is a step forward in the movement to establish wireless community networks. The benefits incurred by these networks are endless and not limited to the ability to establish more reliable forms of emergency communication in disasters. Wireless community networks will open doors to innovators by giving them readily available, “cheap connectivity regardless of where [they are] physically” according to the Open Wireless site.

Privacy remains a pressing issue to some critics. However, EFF insists that open wireless actually enhances privacy and anonymity by dissociating the owner’s IP identity with specific usage. “Your IP address is not your identity, and your identity is not your IP address” argues EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo in the interview with Wired. EFF also released a white paper addressing the alleged user risk of secondary liability for opening up their networks to individuals who engage in copyright infringement.

Another hindrance to their mission is major Internet Access Providers’ practice of including terms in their policies that restrict users from running an open wireless network. While some carriers like Comcast appear to be beginning to embrace hotspot technology, they do not extend the use to those outside the carrier’s contracts. Additionally, Comcast has come under scrutiny for actually turning this seemingly consumer-benefited move into a scam for the company to make more money off the increased electricity used to operate these WiFi networks.

Mesh networking systems may be the solution to incumbent providers’ resistance to embrace open networks by utilizing unlicensed spectrum. With the aid of a router, antenna, and a community incentive to organize, users are able to bypass contracts with retail Internet Access Providers and set up their own network.

The concept of mesh networks is not novel. Originally developed for military usage, many community powered projects have been implemented around the globe. A notable example in Europe is FunkFeurer (“Network Fire”) in Austria that enables anyone to connect to their unregulated network. The demand and desire to develop mesh networks has diminished in the United States over the years, but there are still initiatives to establish these networks. Commotion Wireless, a project of the Open Technology Institute (a supporter of the Open Wireless Movement), published a “Commotion Construction Kit” last year which they promote as a DIY guide to building wireless mesh networks. The FCC’s recent push to open up spectrum for unlicensed and WiFi uses only encourages further development of this technology.

Now, however, there is an incentive to do away with the traditional routers and hardware altogether. Developers have begun to harness mesh networks in mobile applications, enabled by the peer-to-peer connectivity software in many smartphones. Open Garden provides a free app that creates wireless networks around other users that have downloaded their Open Garden app, and also created the FireChat app, which enables communication between phones without a WiFi connection or carrier plan. Applications like these are connecting users to the Internet in a new way. In an interview with Forbes, Open Garden founder Micha Benoliel said, “Our core business is connectivity. The traditional players are the carriers, who deploy cable and fiber infrastructure.” Benoliel, however, chooses to identify with the “new breed of player in connectivity” who is “playing at it with fiber but now doing experimental work with satellites and drones.”

Open Garden is contributing to this revolution in connectivity with this development of a single app. There has been pushback from providers like AT&T, who requested that Google Play block access to the Open Garden app. But with over 5 million users, it is clear that the resistance is fairly inconsequential to Open Garden’s growth.

With privacy concerns being seemingly dissuaded and user demand for Internet access outside the traditional norm, innovation is occurring at a rapid rate. The consumer is at the focus of these new models, and the public seems ready to embrace these new approaches to Internet access.

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