Things Macintosh

Wireless Internet Access Should Be Free, Just Like Radio

Rodney O. Lain - 2002.03.11

The popularity of 802.11 has also begun to inspire the construction of networks that are intended to be shared, either free or for a fee.
  - The New York Times 3/4/2002

Wouldn't it be interesting to walk down the street with your laptop or PDA and be able to access your home machine? Or the business that you're walking by? Or even the Internet?
  - Seattle Wireless project

IN FRONT OF A MINNESOTA MOVIE THEATER - On a lark, I decide to go and watch the remake of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine" last Saturday. (Translation: The Wife said, "I know you're not going to lie on that couch all day with that laptop. Either help me clean or get out of the house.")

So here I am, an hour before the movie starts, just me and my trusty iBook, surfing some news articles I'd downloaded before leaving home. One particular news story has my attention this morning, a New York Times piece, Good (or Unwitting) Neighbors Make for Good Internet Access (free registration required), in which the reporter chronicles the ease with which virtually any bloke can access the Internet via his neighbor's wireless broadband connection.

After calling home and asking the wife to check to see if my AirPort access point is password enabled (translation: "You called me for that? You'd better pick up the dry cleaning on your way home. And don't call me again about that damned computer."), I realized that I wouldn't want anyone piggybacking on my Internet connection. Hypocrite that I am, I do believe that commercial wireless access, however, is a different-colored horse.

Wireless connectivity is now a fixed entry in the official lexicon of the digital lifestyle. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Ditto for PDAs and laptops. Each is capable of Internet connections. Couple this with the fact that we are on the brink of an explosion of wireleless-capable services and devices that will enable access to Internet information regardless of location. This is a prime time for free wireless connectivity to be offered by retailers whose store environments also serve a social function - i.e., gathering places like coffee shops, libraries, book stores, malls, and airports.

I don't claim to be making any revolutionary statement here. There are already wireless offerings like Wayport that offer wireless connections in select airports and hotels. What will be happening is the offering of such services nearly anywhere you can plop down with a laptop. Those days are coming soon.

The problem is that only now has the price of wireless networking equipment started to fall to price levels acceptable to us mere mortals (Apple's AirPort is arguably the most expensive on the market at $299 for the base station and $99 for the card). But I predict that more public locations will begin to provide wireless Internet in public places as we consumers begin clamoring for wireless access points in the near future.

One of my biggest frustrations is having my laptop with me and not being able to get an Internet connection anywhere other than my home or the Mall of America (near the Apple Store). Imagine being able to be at nearly any type of location conducive to us laptop warriors and being able to download email, fax documents, and upload to your Web site.

I'm confident that this will begin to happen, but I think that it will take a little democracy and consumerism in action. By democracy, I believe that laws will have to be passed to ensure that businesses like cafés will be able to allow customers free Internet usage via a store-owned access point (I don't typically like "gub' mint" intruding upon my life, but this is one area where I wouldn't mind).

Why do I say legislation needs to be involved with wireless Internet in public places? Well, there are already broadband providers blanching at movements like Free Networks that aim to make wireless access - not necessarily free access - available to the masses. Already such efforts exist in Seattle, Houston, and New York City.

Also, we need some consumer activism, as well. People like you and me need to talk to businesses that we frequent and ask them about providing wireless Internet access. This is a novel way to distinguish one company from its competitors. This distinguishing characteristic will only last for a short while, though, before the day comes where nearly every public place has some designated area where 802.11 frequencies reign.

I encourage you to spend some time away from home with your laptop and imagine being able to access the Internet unfettered by wires or your home's four walls.

Location-independent Internet is the future. The future isn't now, but it should be. I encourage you to do what you can to bring about this future. LEM

Rodney O. Lain (1968-2002) called himself a fashion victim: He liked wearing socks with his sandals. When he wasn't dispensing fashion advice, Rodney wrote for Low End Mac, The Mac Observer, Applelinks, and many other websites. Rodney lived in Minnesota. His own website was, and we have collected as much of his writing that has since disappeared from the Web as possible in The Rodney O. Lain Archive.

The most widely read Things Macintosh columns:

  1. Apple is a company, 10/4/1999
  2. The main difference between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, 1/17/2000
  3. The $600 iMac, 12/24/1999
  4. Apple will rule the computer world, 11/17/1999
  5. I'm not paying $20 for my OS X upgrade, 2001.07.25.
  6. A Mac is like Prozac, 10/13/1999
  7. I'm a drop the funk bomb on ya: Milking the Macintosh for all it's worth, 2001.03.20.
  8. More links and links to memorial articles in the Things Macintosh index.

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