Warchalkers battle for WiFi access
Warchalkers beware. The fightback has commenced. Over the past few weeks, diverse organizations have blasted the technique of warchalking --clandestinely chalking symbols on pavements and building walls highlighting hot-spots where wireless LANs can be accessed freely -- as plain bandwidth theft.
The spoil-sports range from some global Internet Service Providers, Britain's Confederation of British Industry, the FBI in America and last week a warning from mobile wireless giant Nokia.
The new fad has not yet taken the wireless networking sector by storm, but the fact that such organizations, and companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T are sufficiently concerned, and have started looking at ways to counteract the practice by deploying extra security, is a tell-tale sign of its own.
So far it's been wireless Internet enthusiasts, (contemptuously referred to by the authorities as 'geeks') that have been drawing odd looking symbols in chalk to mark the spots where signals from nearby office wireless networks can be tapped into to access the Internet.
The idea came from London based information architect Matt Jones early this summer, who wanted a simple and elegant solution to one of the biggest problems facing the open wireless user ---how to find an access point if you can't get on line initially. It was apparently inspired by the way hobos left signs for each other during the depression era in the US.
The 'solution' is a set of internationally recognized and accepted symbols alerting users to where wireless broadband can be accessed. If you have not come across them, look for two half-moons to indicate an open node, a circle to show a closed one, and a circle with a W to indicate a WEP node that would be difficult to access because of encryption. Each has a Service Set Identifier (SSID) at the top, which acts as a password to the node.
The origins of the term refer to old one of wardialling and more recently warwalking, where people with wireless equipped PDAs or laptops wander the streets looking for open corporate networks.
The enthusiasts naturally prefer to stress that the whole concept should be viewed as a way to spread the idea of community wireless networking, and not a ruse to crack networks nor even of stealing bandwidth and thus damage a corporate WLANs integrity or Quality of Service.
Whatever the security, data integrity, bandwidth reduction and bandwidth theft implications -- and all are certainly profound -- the concept has clearly thrown up interest in the potential of that ideal.
At about the same time as warchalking was beginning to take off in earnest across both sides of the Atlantic, I heard Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Labs pontificate on how the migration if Wireless LANs from today's ever growing hot-spots to multihop ad-hoc pico networks would inevitably lead to the next great disruption in the world of telecommunications.
Speaking at Motorola's Smart Networks Developers' Forum in his usual evangelistic way, the message was clear. A seamless broadband communications system based on such networks, built by the people for the people, is literally on the horizon -- and the existing network providers had better look to their business models if they are to survive.
What, if any role warchalking might play in this giant upheaval and shift to a 'top-up' model for broadband wireless access remains to be seen. At the crudest level -- what happens if it rains? The enthusiasts respond that of course if the symbols were washed away, walls and sidewalks would simply be re-marked. In any case, that would re-validate the accuracy and integrity of the system, they argue.
Fanciful? Maybe. But with the uptake globally of WiFi, who is to say a more realistic scenario of the emerging global community wireless network would not take the best ideas from the 'enthusiasts' as well as the 'visionaries'.