Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Free net access for all

I get online wherever I go - without dial-up

For people who travel a lot, finding internet access can be the difference between working and sitting idle. According to Peter Cochrane, it's becoming increasingly easy to get online in office buildings and public places - if you show a little ingenuity.

Last year I experienced my first couple of weeks travelling across North America with universally free high-speed internet connectivity using Wi-Fi and wired LAN connections. Every hotel, company, university and airport I visited had free access available by one mechanism or another. Returning to Europe was a bit of a shock as I decelerated down from 1.5 and 6Mbps to a mere 28Kbps, courtesy of local dial-in connections.

Nine months have passed since that trip and I've just had my first 'dial-in free' week in London. Just like the US every connection has been via free Wi-Fi or a wired LAN.

Roughly speaking it looks as though the UK is running about a year behind the US in this respect, and the only significant difference appears to be the amount of bandwidth available. On corporate LANs and WANs in the UK I find reasonable speeds of up to 2Mbps, but for the poor old UK broadband home customer the average connection speed is not 256Kbps to 560Kbps as advertised, but as slow as a mere 33Kbps due to the contention ratio. That is, the number of customers sharing a broadband connection waters down the actual capacity to something less than that of a 56Kbps dial-up modem.

For me, and people like me - predominately mobile data users traversing companies, countries and cities - being able to open up the lid of a laptop and get online with little or no effort makes all the difference to the rate at which we can do business. No bits means no business! And speed really matters - time lost trying to connect and waiting for vital uploads and downloads can be costly.

Some of the mechanisms by which I connect are amusing whilst others are just routine. Most times I merely ask for permission to connect to a company LAN or WAN and get on with the job. In many office buildings, it is now possible to find between one and three Wi-Fi signals available with or without the WEP turned on. Very often the network name and password are on a Post-It note stuck on the side of someone's monitor, on a notice board or sometimes even glued to the side of the wireless networking equipment. This makes it extremely easy to get access.

The more amusing instances involve some ingenuity in terms of finding the facility and then being able to break in.

One of my greatest feats was during a recent meeting at a government building. I turned on my laptop and could see three wireless LANs. Two had the WEP turned off, but both were asking for a password. The people at the meeting declared it would be impossible to break into this LAN and get internet access because of the high level of security.

I decided to try anyway. I stepped out of the meeting room, walked down the corridor and knocked on and opened a door to find eight people in an office.

"Excuse me, guys, but is anyone here using the wireless LAN?" I asked

"Sure. Are you having problems?" someone shouted back.

"Well…" I replied.

"What you need is the password – it is xyz123. Would you like me to help you get access?"

"No, I think I can manage. Thanks," I said

I then returned to the meeting room, sat down among my colleagues, typed in the password and to their complete amazement connected to the internet. I quickly downloaded my email and some large files and departed the building for my next destination with no harm done.

On another occasion I was stranded in a railway station only to find that the facility was demanding over $10 for 30 minutes of internet connection time, which had to be contiguous minutes and could not be used at my discretion. Alarmingly the provider also had a rate for an entire year, which exceeded $1,000. I'm not quite sure what planet these people are on, but no one is going to spend $1,000 a year for internet access from a single provider at a few railway stations, coffee houses and hotels. What was both humorous and paradoxical was that in the railway café I could see a further two providers, one of whom was entirely free. Again I managed to get access to the internet for no money at all.

I had yet another amusing experience while heading to a meeting in London. The meeting was located in a 10-story building and as I was early I was shown to a waiting room. Here I turned on my laptop and found five Wi-Fi signals available, one of which had 'vis' in the network name, which led me to believe it was a visitors wireless LAN. Sure enough I got online without a password, made liberal use of the connection and then went into my meeting.

As I was leaving later that afternoon I thanked the company for their hospitality and business and also made a point of saying I thought it was a great idea to provide a visitors LAN for people like me. Their response: What visitors LAN? Whoops. It turns out I had been using a network from another company on some other floor in the building.

Why are people leaving WEP turned off and otherwise making it extremely easy to get access to wireless networks? I think it's a function of ignorance, but more an act of charity. All of the people I know who have Wi-Fi in their homes or offices make the connection generally available so that it can be used within the same building or even from the street outside. Either they don't know they're doing this or they do know and don't mind sharing their net access with others.

Open net access seems to be a trend for the future. At airports I find that airlines that don't provide a wireless LAN in their lounge are often right next door to airlines that do, and as radio waves go through walls, access is not a problem.

The next big revolution in this game is going to be the use of voice over IP (VoIP) on Wi-Fi. In the last two years my mobile phone charges have dropped by 90 per cent as a result of using Wi-Fi connections for data instead of my mobile phone. Once I can get general VoIP connectivity from my laptop I may even see another big drop!

Dictated at the Cheltenham Science Festival in a marquee behind the town hall. Despatched home via a company LAN in Cambridge the next day. Modified and passed to my PA a few days later. The typed version forwarded to via a free Wi-Fi link detected just off the A14 close to Cambridge.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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