Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Free wi fi = free beer, free speech or stolen beer?

Interesting discovery - an outfit called FON who are aiming to provide access to members ("Foneros") to free but secure wi fi wherever you go. They're backed by some heavyweight names like Esther Dyson and Dan Gilmore. Basically, individuals are encouraged to sign up to FON and buy a FON-equipped router, (for the reduced sum of 25 Euros/USD)which allows other FON users to use their bandwidth, via pre arranged usernames and passwords, wherever they go. FON undertake that the original user will always be left with a "reasonable amount of bandwidth" whatever that means :-) - and it does have the big advantage of meaning you can share a wi fi connection with pals without leaving it unsecured.

The big question, of course, is how legal is it? A while back as an anecdotal exercise I looked at a few UK ISP subscriber contracts and found that few, if any, had any direct prohibition on bandwidth sharing. Yet one imagines they wouldn't be too happy if this sort of wi fi sharing took off globally. The FON people themselves rather cleverly cover their backs with a term in the legal notice:

"In accordance with the Terms and Conditions of Use of FON Services, Foneros who enter the FON Community must have access to the Internet where they are permitted to share bandwidth with others and/or to download FON Software onto your router."

Of course there is no implication that they will check this so the legal risk falls on the users, which is of even less comfort to ISPs one imagine - always better to have a node to sue than a multiplicity of users. (Can we foresee the invention of the tort of inducement of wireless bandwidth theft a la Grokster??)

There's also a few cases lately in US and UK which hold that war-chalking - stealing bandwidth without the consent of the original bandwidth renter - is a crime. Yet this is IMHO not that either, since everyone involved in the FON network has consented to wi fi sharing.

So I conclude it's legal. Stick Skype or similar on your PDA (the new Orange SPV 3G phone will do this nicely, even though it is the size of a brick) and you need never pay a long distance phone bill again. Will this take off? I wonder. My own needs for wireless are most prominent (a) in hotels (b) in airports - and neither is somewhere where FON subscribers are likely to live and have a FON router set up. But then I'm quite hapy to pay my £15 a month for broadband from Telewest - maybe others are more canny/mean.

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