I swear to god, I don’t know anyone who does this!
COMMUNAL BROADBRAND Neighbors sharing high-speed Internet access via wireless networks is popular and controversial Matthew Yi, Chronicle Staff Writer Wednesday, December 19, 2001 Â©2002 San Francisco Chronicle
Sean Berry shares his broadband Internet connection with three neighbors – – including one across the street — but doesn’t have any wires running out of his windows or doors.
And in return, his neighbors sometimes pitch in to help pay the monthly $80 DSL service fee.
“There’s no formal money that changes hands. I’m not looking to make any money on it, but they do chip in every once in a while,” said Berry, a 27-year- old Unix systems engineer who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park. “It’s about the same rate as people chipping in for pizza.”
With the cost of rigging local-area, high-speed wireless networks plunging during the past couple of years, some tech-savvy Bay Area neighbors are finding economies in sharing broadband Internet service.
The movement is rubbing at least one broadband service provider the wrong way.
“We view it the same way as cable theft . . . and that’s against a variety of state and federal laws,” said Andrew Johnson, spokesman for AT&T Broadband, which provides cable modem service to 1.4 million customers across the nation.
The cable company even conducts flyovers in selected areas twice a year looking for any unauthorized “leakages” of cable TV and broadband signals, he said. When found, AT&T said it simply disconnects the customer.
While there may be some who splice and split broadband connections illegally, there are plenty of ways to share bandwidth legally, users say.
And many are finding online groups such as the Bay Area Wireless User Group to swap ideas on how to do it.
The user group, which began a year ago, now has about 1,200 people in its digital ranks. The list of techies who publicize their own wireless networks on the group’s Web site for others to use for free has grown from just a few to more than 20 in a year.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Tim Pozar, co-founder of the user group. He shares his wireless network and DSL connection with his next- door neighbor and a friend two blocks away, using a directional antenna atop his three-story Sunset District home in San Francisco.
The technology that enables this sharing is 802.11, also known as Wi-Fi, which can be found in such consumer products as Apple’s AirPort, Lucent’s Orinoco and Intel’s AnyPoint II Wireless Home Networking Kit.
With a range of little more than 100 feet, the gear is designed to help users wirelessly connect their broadband-linked desktop computer to laptops, PDAs or other peripherals such as printers and scanners.
But if you attach an external antenna, the range can easily go beyond just a couple of hundred feet.
And more importantly, the cost of setting up such networks has dropped substantially, from more than $2,000 two years ago to about $300 to $400 or even lower, depending on the latest closeout sales.
The network typically has one access point device tethered to a desktop computer and uses radio signals to communicate with other computers or devices.
That’s what Berry has done. Using an external antenna to increase the range,
his next-door neighbors, friends who live a floor below and other friends across the street can all tap into his network and the Internet.
“It’s wonderful stuff,” Berry said. “I work in the tech industry, so it’s fun to play with this stuff at home.”
Others have taken ideas off the Internet, such as using a Pringles potato chip can to build a directional antenna with a range that extends for miles.
“Hey, it cost me $6 (for parts) and it works,” said Sameer Verma, assistant processor of information systems at San Francisco State University.
Raines Cohen and 19 other neighbors in their downtown Oakland condo building each pay $4 for their DSL connection by sharing a single $80 DSL line using a combination of traditional Ethernet connections — which the building developer installed before the residents moved in — plus a wireless network.
“It is a backdoor way of saving money,” said Cohen, a 35-year-old software consultant. “All our neighbors (which include nurses, teachers, retirees and architects) now have computers at home and several have laptops using the wireless connection.”
While cable modem carriers such as AT&T may have stringent rules about sharing bandwidth outside the customer’s home, some DSL providers are lax about the issue.
“We don’t think it’s good policy to open up your line to people you’re not responsible for, but it’s not an expressly forbidden policy,” said Hunter Middleton, Covad’s group manager of consumer product marketing.
He said customers need to know there are potential liabilities, such as unauthorized users downloading illegal material like child pornography, and that sharing bandwidth with others may slow the connection speed.
“It seems like a lot of effort for a service that’s fairly low priced,” Middleton said, noting that DSL services can be had for as little as $50 per month.
Pacific Bell also doesn’t specifically forbid the practice, but does discourage customers from doing it, said Shawn Dainas, spokesman for SBC Communications, the utility’s parent company.
“It’s not in the policy, but that’s not the intended use,” he said.
Dave Solomon, systems administrator at an East Bay Internet service provider, Idiom.com, said his company doesn’t mind customers sharing connections.
“The angle most smaller ISPs will take is that this will make our customers happier, and happy customers are what we’re looking for,” he said.
But security is something users need to be aware of because the current encryption standard on Wi-Fi networks — known as Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP — has been broken, said Tony Bautts, a security design consultant who currently works for Wells Fargo Bank.
The bottom line is that hacking into a wireless network is “really, really easy,” he said.
An 802.11 industry group plans to announce a fix to the WEP security problems in existing units next month, while continuing to work for a more complete solution in future products.
For now, though, not only can hackers tap into the wireless network bandwidth, they can also look through files in your hard drive — a dangerous proposition, especially if the user keeps such information as bank account and credit card numbers on the computer. There are ways to keep people out of the computer files — such as instructing your OS to not share files — but these are precautionary steps wireless network users must actively pursue, Bautts said.
Despite these possible pitfalls, the benefits do outweigh the downsides, especially if proper precautions are taken, users say.
“You don’t trip over Ethernet cords, I take my laptop to the kitchen to look up recipes, take it outside when the weather’s nice . . . and I have social contact with others using the network,” Berry said.
E-mail Matthew Yi at myi [at] sfchronicle [dot] com.