August 1, 2013 | By Dan Auerbach and Adi Kamdar

Not-Quite-Open Wireless: What Does it Mean to Be Really Open?

In addition to the vast number of open community wireless networks all over the world, there has been a recent uptick in business plans from start-ups and well-established companies that aim to increase wireless Internet access. The Open Wireless Movement encourages free, open, and unrestricted wireless access we welcome private sector participation alongside the work of communities, non-profits, governments, and dedicated individuals, in order to realize this vision.

But not all business plans that promote wireless access are equal. Here are some guiding principles for those who are looking to build or grow solutions that promote wireless Internet access consistent with the Open Wireless Movement:

  1. No captive portals. Unfortunately, captive portals have become a common tool for doling out wireless access, especially in developed areas like San Francisco, where EFF's office is located. But captive portals hinder important security services that require an unfettered connection between the user and the remote origin. Moreover, captive portals are incompatible with browser-less embedded devices and non-browser client software, and are unnecessary for distributing Terms of Service agreements.

  2. No authentication required for users. Users should not have to authenticate in order to use the Internet. This factor is crucial to uphold user privacy and anonymity.

  3. No configuration required for users. Users should not have to go through a complicated configuration process or install additional software in order to make use of an open wireless access point.

  1. No cost barriers for users. We do not want to categorically insist that open wireless must be free of charge, but the important principle is that cost does not create a barrier for people who need to only make small use of an often abundant resource.

  2. Universal availability. Open wireless networks should be open to anyone in range with a wireless-capable device, not only to those who fall into a certain category, such as subscribers to a particular Internet service.

  3. Peaceful coexistence with existing open wireless networks. Open wireless solutions should not cannibalize other open networks, and users should ideally have a range of open wireless options available to them.

In addition, we think open wireless networks of the future should provide meaningful security for users. We also think that the future ecosystem of open wireless networks needs to be sufficiently decentralized so that no single entity stands between a very large set of users and seamless access to the free Internet.

With this rubric in mind, we thought we'd take stock of some of the not-quite-open wireless solutions out there that came across our radar to see how they stack up against our principles for truly open wireless. This list is not comprehensive, but it should give a flavor of the strengths and shortcomings of some of these alternative almost-open wireless solutions.

Comcast Fon Karma Ruckus
No captive portal FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL
No authentication FAIL FAIL FAIL (Facebook required!) ?
No configuration PASS PASS ? PASS
No cost barriers PASS PASS 1/2 FAIL
Universal availability FAIL FAIL PASS PASS
Peaceful coexistence 1/2 1/2 PASS PASS
Secure FAIL FAIL FAIL 1/2

Have we missed any popular and active new business models encouraging wireless Internet access that should be on this chart? Please write to us to let us know: openwireless@eff.org.


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