Bruce Umbaugh (bumbaugh) Tue 5 Aug 03 13:55
Joining us in Inkwell is Well member John Ross, who has been writing about wired and wireless networks and data communication for almost thirty years, including technical manuals and marketing literature for Motorola, AT&T and other major equipment manufacturers and service providers, magazine articles, and more than two dozen books about computers, networks and the Internet. He has also produced radio features about science and technology for NPR, the BBC and other broadcasters around the world. He's also a host of The Well's Northwest, Transportation and bigballs.ind (roots music) conferences. Leading the conversation is Jon Lebkowsky, CEO of Polycot, an Austin, Texas company focusing on computer networks and software tools for effective collaboration and communication. He's worked as a project manager, technology director, and online community developer, but he's also known for his writing (mostly about technoculture) and various high-visibility Internet projects over the last decade-plus. He was cofounder and CEO of one of one of the first virtual corporations, FringeWare, Inc. He's hosted several conferences on the WELL, worked as a writer and host at Howard Rheingold's Electric Minds, and moderated chat events at HotWired. In 1997 he joined Whole Foods Market to help coordinate the development of their Internet, intranet, and e-commerce initiatives. He's written for publications such as Wired Magazine, Mondo 2000, 21C, Whole Earth Review, Fringe Ware Review, and the Austin Chronicle. His popular weblog is at http://www.weblogsky.com. Jon is President of EFF-Austin, a member of the Austin Free-Net Board of Directors and the steering committee for the Austin Clean Energy Initiative, and member of the steering committee for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference. He is currently leading a research project on the economic impact of wireless telecommunications (http://www.wirelessfuture.org) for IC², an Austin think tank associated with the University of Texas. John, Jon: clue us in on this crazy Wi-Fi stuff, 'mkay?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 6 Aug 03 15:20
John, thanks for joining us! I thought we might start with the basics. What is WiFi, exactly? What makes it such a big deal for so many people?
John Ross (johnross) Wed 6 Aug 03 21:22
Okay, basics first. WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) is the name that the marketing folks use for wireless extensions to a local area network (LAN) that comply with the 802.11b specification, or one of the later specs derived from 802.11b. In practical terms, it's a technology that allows a user to connect a computer to a network by radio. The original idea was to extend a LAN to places where it's difficult or inconvenient to plug a portable computer into a network through a cable -- a factory floor, for example, or a conference room. But over the last few years, it has also become the de facto standard for public wireless acccess to the Internet. Access points in airport terminals, conference centers, college campuses and other public spaces have been showing up all over the world, or so it seems. This is not the way the telephone companies and Internset access providers planned things. They were all looking at third-generation (3G) cellular telphonenetworks to provide public wireless Internet service, and they're all scrambling to board the WiFI bandwagon. Why is it a big deal? It extends access to the Internet, at relatively high speed, beyond the traditional office and home computers to public spaces like coffee shops, park benches and ferry boats. Combined with palmtop computers, fancy portable phones and other small devices, it implies a future with instant access to the Internet almost everywhere. So lots of people smell money to be made. Starbucks and McDonalds are installing access points in their stores, and a Boeing subsidiary is developing a system that will work on commercial aircraft. Meantime, nobody has found the right business model to see more money coming in than going out. Meantime, the original objective of WiFi -- expending office and home LANs to wireless devices -- is becoming easier and cheaper, and the security issues are gradually being resolved.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 7 Aug 03 07:53
You mention 3G - how does it compare to WiFi? It hasn't appeared in the US yet: do you think it will arrive at some point and blow WiFi away?
John Ross (johnross) Thu 7 Aug 03 15:44
3G has a much smaller bandwidth -- you can't push as many bits through a link -- but it can have much broader coverage. WiFi is a lot faster, so it can support streaming video and other large files, but the signal range from each access point/base station is normally just a few hundred yards. So you would need a lot more base stations for a city-wide WiFi network, but that increases thecost of providing the service. I have no opinion about the ultimate commercial future of this stuff. For all I know, some other technology could come along and make both of those services irrelevant.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 7 Aug 03 20:48
Before we dig into WiFi, how does WiMax (802.16) fit the picture?
John Ross (johnross) Fri 8 Aug 03 09:33
I have no idea. From where I'm watching this stuff, the technology isn't as important as the money, and the conflict between the commercial service providers and the community networkers. Conflict or cooperation; it remains to be seen how this will all play out. I wrote The Book of WiFi for end users. From the end-user's point of view, the infrastructure that distributes Internet access to the local access point should be transparent.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 8 Aug 03 12:12
Are there dual-band devices that can use either Wi-Fi or a cellphone network?
John Ross (johnross) Fri 8 Aug 03 12:16
If they're not out there right now, they're coming. One of the service providers (Sprint, I think), has announced ahybrid package, but I don't know if they've installed the infrastructure yet.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 8 Aug 03 12:29
I got the book right after I finally got our little domestic wireless network working, and have to say that I wish I'd read it much earlier: would have saved me a few weeks of experimenting.
Kurt Sigmon (kd-scigmon) Fri 8 Aug 03 13:12
Hi John I run 802.11b mixed with ethernet at home. What's the story on security these ddays - best practices? I know that the standard WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol) is dissed for its easy crackability, but should home users still use it? What's coming down the pike to replace it?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 8 Aug 03 13:43
Adding to that question... aren't there at least two kinds of security to consider - network security and data security? I'm thinking the former is more about preventing intrusion via wireless access, whereas the latter is concerned with data exposed as it's transmitted over open radio frequencies?
Kurt Sigmon (kd-scigmon) Fri 8 Aug 03 13:55
Good point. There's also network security in the sense of not sharing a connection unwittingly. My ISP has announced a plan where broadband users may share a connection with neighbors using wireless, they handle the billing and tech support would be available. In my nabe, if someone wanted to illicitly piggyback on my broadband connection they'd either have to be able to see my access point from a nearby house or park on the street - not likely in our balmy desert summer. I did discover one day that poor response from an upstairs wifi computer was due to it having somehow gotten attached to a neighbor's network and not mine.
John Ross (johnross) Fri 8 Aug 03 14:35
In absolute terms, 802.11b WiFi networks are not secure. There are a bunch of sniffer/cracker tools out there that can break WEP security within a couple of hours (maybe less). But there are some ways of dealing with the problem. As (jonl) said, there are at least two separate issues: unauthorized users connecting to your network and snoopers monitoring data as it moves across the network. As far as I'm concerned, WEP encryption is probably enough to discourage drive-by access (aka war driving), because such a huge number of WiFi networks don't bother to use any encryption at all. It's like those "Club" locks on your car. An experienced car thief can open one of those things in just a few minutes, but they generally don't bother, because it's easier to move down the block to steal a car without a club. The other security feature that most people don't use is "access control" that limits access to known network adapters. If a "foreign" device tries to connect, the base station won't accept the link. And for heaven's sake, change the name and password of the base station. Don't use the factory defaults, which are well known to crackers. For most users, especially in home networks, the combination of WEP encryption and access control are probably adequate protection. Notperfect, but enough to discourage most would-be access theives to try somebodyelse's network. As for the threat of somebody grabbing your data as it moves across the wireless link, it can be done, but it requires more sophisitcated gear, so it's not at all common. I'd worry about it if I was a target for industrial espionage, but not on a home network. The best way to prevent it is probably a virtual private network.
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Fri 8 Aug 03 16:15
Well, what do you think about the idea of people leaving their home Wi-Fi networks purposely open for others to share? Other than the obvious issue of strangers stealing all my bandwidth, what are the liability issues? Can I claim to be the equivalent of an ISP in that case, broadly shielded against criminal and third-party claims of illegal usages?
John Ross (johnross) Fri 8 Aug 03 21:06
I'm not a lawyer, but i suppose it would depend on the terms of your contract with your own ISP. If they permit you to "resell" your bandwidth, then you're probably a common carrier or something like it. I've never heard of anybody being prosecuted, but I suppose it's possible. Considering that a laibility suit might go after everybody in sight, the cost of a legal defence might be enough to discourage opening up your WiFi connection on purpose, unless your liability insurance covers it. I don't know how the public hotspots and community networks deal with the issue. It probably hasn't come up as yet.
Suzanne (suemcb) Fri 8 Aug 03 22:59
Will you talk about bluetooth?
Peter Meuleners (pjm) Sat 9 Aug 03 09:32
John, I liked the book. I am impressed that the language is accessible to both the sophisticated end user and the neophyte. Thanks for this important addition to the Wi-Fi library.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 9 Aug 03 09:49
Is Bluetooth out of scope, since it's not WiFi? WiFi was originally created as a LAN technology. Could we talk a bit about the considerations that led to this? How does 802.11 extend the capabilities of an internal network?
John Ross (johnross) Sat 9 Aug 03 10:29
Bluetooth uses the same chunk of unlicensed radio spectrum as WiFi, but it's a different form of radio modulation. Which is to say, they can interfere with each other under certain conditions. It's a completely different type of wireless service--designed to connect peripheral devices at very short range, whereas WiFi is an extension of ethernet that connects computers. So you might use Bluetooth for a wireless keyboard or scanner, but it's the wrong choice to do file transfers from a laptop to a desktop computer. There's about half a paragraph about Bluetooth in my book. I haven't spent any time working with it, so I'm the wrong person to ask about it. (jonl), I don't understand your question in #18. When WiFi/802.11 works properly, it's a wireless extension of a LAN that looks just like a LAN with ethernet cables.
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Sat 9 Aug 03 14:41
<15> Don't want to sidetrack the discussion too much with this, but it's definitely an interesting point, esp. vis-a-vis community networks, which are reported to be springing up all over the place. I'd be fairly sure that one's ISP agreement, while of some import, probably cannot determine the rights of third parties, under the basic legal premise that a private agreement between two parties can't work to cut off the rights of a third party. (The agreement could, of course, determine who is responsible for the liability to the third party.) And similarly, the requirements for a shield against criminal liability is probably based on factual points rather than on the terms of a private contract. This is definitely worth some additional research...
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sun 10 Aug 03 04:39
Bluetooth has a short range distance of 10 m radius, the distance across two rooms in a house if that. Wifi has a range of 100 meters plus, 330 feet plus. THink of a football field or the third house down the street. It's not far, but it does help in the Last Mile problem. Bluetooth is seen as an appliance tool even if it has a limit on number of appliances, seven as I recall. So it might be used in the kitchen. And it could be used to reduce the wiring mess behind the computer except for video. In the end it is another alternative, not an end all solution. Johnross, can Wifi replace the telephone?
John Ross (johnross) Sun 10 Aug 03 10:22
I suppose it could, if Voice Over IP (VoIP) replaces the public switched telephone network. [Jargon-free explanation: it's possible to move telephone calls through data networks such as the Internet, which use a very dofferent kind of switching from the traditional telephone network) But it doesn't seem likely, assuming we're talking about voice services. The existing cellular services seem like a better bet for wireless voice communication.
Kurt Sigmon (kd-scigmon) Sun 10 Aug 03 11:08
If anyone is interested, my ISP speakeasy.net is offering the right to 'resell' broadband connection bandwidth to neighbors via wireless. http://www.speakeasy.net/main.php?page=pr070803
John Ross (johnross) Sun 10 Aug 03 14:23
I should say that I have a certain amount of sympathy for the ISPs who don't want their residential DSL or cable modem subscribers to create open public WiFi hotspots or community networks. The ISPs base their pricing and the size of their upstream connections to the Internet backbone on estimates of average volume per account. If and when the demand for bandwidth increases significantly, the ISPs will have to allocate resources to support that demand, so they're justified in charging a high-volume user more than they charge an average-volume user, or in actively discouraging their customers from redistributing bandwidth. This is probably one of those cases where the form of use is ahead of the business model, so there might not be anything in the tariffs or the terms of service that specifically forbids redistribution. But it's an additional burden on the system when the link to the backbone has to handle a lot more bits than the original projections expected. Eventually, I suppose the backbone links will catch up, and the connections will become "to cheap to meter", just as long distance telephone is moving in that direction. But in the meantime, it's rough on the ISPs who can't use their established formulas to anticipate future demand.
Michael C. Hollinger (mhollin1) Sun 10 Aug 03 14:55
I've used WiFi ever since it was still called 802.11b, with my original blueberry iBook and my Airport base station. This sort of technology is what I find fascinating -- augmented reality, and information "on demand" (apologies to IBM's marketing team). *points to his profile* At college, we use WiFi exclusively in the engineering corners of campus, as well as a few of the larger "hang outs" such as the student union, and the Engineer's Courtyard. Almost anywhere I am in a given day, I'm able to turn on my tablet, and tap away happily on the internet. On campus, we're giving away this free-for-all bandwidth. There's no authentication, no ID checking -- the servers hand out addresses to anyone / everyone. The university eats the cost of any of this outsider use, but, at the same time, provides an invaluable tool to its students and researchers. In fact, it's a selling point for the university -- tour groups come through every so often, and the guides make sure to point out the random laptops scattered about the booths and tables as they walk through the dining areas. What do you think about this inherent openness of Wireless networks? Is it worth the security risks to provide such a service? Is it worth the cost?
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