WLANs go free with DIY

Wireless LAN and Bluetooth technology is being used to build neighbourhood networks in the US with free access. Bill Pechey asks if the UK is likely to follow suit

Imagine walking down the street with your PDA switched on, and suddenly it beeps to tell you that it has detected a wireless signal. So you press a key and you're connected to the Internet, where you view your email, check a few news sites, send a thank-you message and go on your way. There was no charge for this very useful service ­ it was provided either out of the goodness of some network operator's heart or perhaps you had to look at an advert before you could connect.

This sort of thing is already happening in the US, but the UK is not far behind. Places such as airports, railway stations and libraries will provide local wireless information networks for their customers, often including free Internet access. Wireless LAN (WLAN) or Bluetooth technologies can provide the links, and new software will make the networks easy to access.

Not that applications are limited to semi-commercial services. Neighbourhood wireless networks are being set up on a cooperative basis by clubs and other local groupings. The idea is that someone with a broadband Internet connection connects a WLAN access point to his network, via a firewall, and offers Internet service to his neighbours located within a 50m to 100m range.

If one of his friends also has an Internet connection and an access point, the two systems can link to form a larger WLAN. As more people join in, providing relays or access services, the little network grows further and is soon well out of control. It wouldn't take long for a whole town to be covered by such a system.

Many of these networks will offer a subset of services to passers-by, and much of the UK could soon have free wireless Net access. Obviously, someone has to pay to build this infrastructure, but what is really being provided is the use of spare capacity for a 'best-efforts' service. Some networks will charge a fee to cover expenses, but the idea of making no profit seems common.

What no one is sure about is whether shared public WLANs are legal in the UK. Oftel is looking into this, and it may be that only a general class licence is required. If shared public WLANs do take off, should the major conventional network operators be worried? I don't think so ­ the fixed operators will be providing Internet connections anyway and the mobile operators ought to protect their profits by taking part, perhaps providing something similar ­ not free, but better in some sense. They could fill in coverage gaps using GPRS or 3G services, or they could offer better throughput or some other quality-of-service measure.

As corporates introduce WLANs, they should make sure that they haven't inadvertently provided one of these free networks. There are stories of competitors reading corporate information from a car in the car park because of bad configurations. However, WLAN security is a topic in itself, and it is one I intend to leave to the experts.

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