"Give me your phone!"
"No! Give me your password!"
"Just give me your phone!"
"Just tell me your password again!"
"I told you three times, already!"
This exact scene has played out several times in my house. The conversation has even more looping subroutines when it involves my parents. No one, it seems, can type in my complicated password on their tiny smartphone touchscreens. At least, not on the first or second try.
That is about to change: I will no longer have a password on my home Wi-Fi.
A Win For The Sharing Economy
The first thing that friends and family ask when they visit is: "What's your Wi-Fi password?" No more. Now, anyone who enters my home—or ventures nearby—will have instant, unfettered access to all the World Wide Web has to offer.
With my move to the tourist mecca that is San Francisco, I expect more guests and visitors, all of whom will probably ask to use my Wi-Fi with less bashfulness than they ask to use the bathroom.
I don't make houseguests sign in before "consuming" my water, electricity or heat. If neighbors need to borrow something—a cup of sugar, perhaps, or my lawnmower—they are welcome, no signature required. Why not bandwidth? My monthly cost for high-speed Internet is probably less than the value I receive as a homeowner by having happy neighbors who keep well-tended homes and look out for one another.
Perhaps my simple act of sharing will improve life in the neighborhood, if just a little.
Consider leaving my Wi-Fi network open my part in enabling the "sharing economy."
Not Afraid Of The Bad Guys
I am not terribly concerned that "hackers" will somehow discover I have a unsecured connection and use it for nefarious deeds.
Hackers already have access to bandwidth. Are they really going to show up in my neighborhood, where retirees seem to love nothing more than to putter outside during the day? Watchful neighborhood eyes peering out the windows late at night are more likely to expose a hacker that any network security tools I can install.
My Wi-Fi network password contains—or once did—a capital letter, several numbers and a symbol. It's unlikely the bad guys are even slowed down by this. Just last month, for example, we learned that the password that Apple generates for establishing an iPhone hotspot is, well, apparently very easy to crack:
According to researchers at Germany's University of Erlangen, the way that the (iPhone) keys are generated—with a combination of a short English word along with random numbers—is predictable to the point where the researchers are able to crack the hotspot password in less than a minute.
Teenagers: Get Off My Virtual Lawn
The only good reason to lock access to my Wi-Fi: teenagers.
Nearly all teenagers have smartphones. The likelihood is that most have hard data caps for these devices. This means they rely on Wi-Fi for much of their streaming, photo uploading, video sharing, and general 24/7 connectivity.
Having a teenager of my own has made me acutely aware of how today's teens, fully and continuously connected to everyone on the planet via smartphone, have a legitimate problem contemplating the world beyond arm's length. If there's an open Wi-Fi connection available, odds are they will jump on, guilt-free and unconcerned about hogging some good Samaritan's bandwidth.
I'm no prude. Queries such as "Kate Upton nude video" or "guy who breaks leg on skateboard" don't upset me. Rather, I am a bit worried that a gaggle of bandwidth-devouring teens might put me in the crosshairs of my broadband provider's customer-service department. Or worse, their lawyers.
Somewhat Afraid Of The Lawyers
With my last network service provider, I (unknowingly) agreed to an "Acceptable Use Policy." I have mightily edited their very direct stipulations. Acceptable use comes with numerous limits (my highlights in bold).
- You agree not to use the Service for or in the pursuit of illegal purposes.
- You agree not to directly or indirectly allow a third party to use the Service in an illegal or unsuitable manner.
- You agree not to use the Service for harassment, threats, verbal abuse, and persistent unwanted contact of any kind.
- You agree not to post or transmit fraudulent information on or through the Service.
- You agree not to post or transmit any unsolicited material through any active medium such as email, chat, messaging, chain letters, advertisements, jokes, etc.
- You agree not to post or transmit any disruptive content. This can include, but is not limited to, material that is considered obscene, offensive, or extremely controversial.
- This Service is intended for personal, periodic, and active use of the World Wide Web, email, news groups, games and file transfers; You may stay connected so long as You are using the Service for this purpose.
- You will not use continued and sustained excessive bandwidth as defined by the TDS Terms of Service in connection with Your use of the Service.
- You may not resell the Service or redistribute or reconfigure the Service to allow others to use the Service in an illegal, fraudulent or inappropriate manner.
- Interpretation will be at the sole discretion of TDS.
Can I trust my neighbors—and their children—to abide by the rules I have signed up for? Always?
Honestly, I don't know. I am prepared to take that risk, however. Somebody has to start this.
Pay It Forward
In fact, it seems that a movement toward open access has already begun. At least, in baby steps.
Last month, Comcast unveiled a plan where its Xfinity home routers will provide Wi-Fi service to the paying customer's home at the same time that it broadcasts public access to Wi-Fi. (The router will partition the two networks so the public doesn't have access to the customer's local network.)
Access to "roaming" Xfinity customers will be offered free. "Guests" are offered two hours per month for free—with the option to pay for additional hours. Comcast says this plan will not affect paying customers' access or bandwidth.
It's not just service providers. Apple's new AirPort Extreme, the company's pricey new Wi-Fi router, lists "guest networking" as one of its core benefits:
With the guest networking feature, you can set up a separate Wi‑Fi network just for guests. Use a different password or no password at all. A guest network allows access only to the Internet, so your primary network — including any external hard drive, printer, or other LAN-attached device — remains secure.
And Apple's far from alone. There's a long list of routers that support guest networks. You just need to be willing to go through a brief setup process to configure your guest network—and you, too, can be out of the handing-out-passwords business.
A lot of places that used to charge for Wi-Fi are now offering it as a freebie. Connectivity is becoming as indispensable for a business as bathroom facilities, possibly as important as heating and air conditioning. Starbucks, which used to charge, went free years ago. I suspect these venues are realizing that it costs far more to collect payment and handle customer support than to simply offer this amenity—which, by the way, makes it easier to use their mobile apps and services. Target and Macy's are offering free Wi-Fi: If you can't find something in their stores, you'll order it online, on your phone—but probably on their online stores, which are heavily promoted when you log in. It turns out there's money in this free Wi-Fi idea.
The Power Of Networking
If businesses can treat their customers—"guests," as Target likes to call them—this well, why can't we treat our actual guests as hospitably when we invite them into our homes?
A guy named Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet, the networking protocol that powers Wi-Fi. He also coined Metcalfe's Law, which says that "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system."
That sounds good, though I can't see what direct value I'll get by opening up my Wi-Fi. I just know that I get to be a good host, and cut out one everyday hassle. The network will take care of itself, if we just drop this pointless barrier.