Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved to walk around his neighborhood in Palo Alto, California. And after his pride and joy, the iPhone, was born, he naturally took it along with him on walks. The first iPhone had a lousy, sluggish, cellular-data network, but it also had a much faster data option: Wi-Fi. It even had a feature (still present, but much less touted) that popped up a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks on the screen, so you could always find one in range.
But, he once told me, there was a big problem with that technique, one that he wanted to fix: Most of the Wi-Fi networks that popped up on his screen couldn’t be used, because they were secured with passwords. Jobs said he understood the need for security, but he was determined to figure out a way to make free, safe, Wi-Fi sharing from homes and small local businesses not only possible, but common. He even told me that he planned to get other companies involved, in a sort of consortium, to make this happen.
His idea was to get as many wireless router makers as possible to build in a “guest network” option — essentially a second Wi-Fi network, securely walled off from the rest of the home network, and with its own name. Then, he hoped that the industry would encourage people to share their bandwidth with strangers via these guest networks. That way, a smartphone user could walk around, moving from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another, without logging in — much like people using cellular data move from one cell tower to another.
Users of this second, guest network wouldn’t have any way to access the owner’s main network, or the computers, network drives, printers, or files on the main network. Yet they’d be able to get onto the Internet, while in range.
No such big public consortium for home Wi-Fi sharing ever emerged. But Apple and other wireless router makers did wind up building a guest network option into their products. (I have no idea whether this stemmed from Steve Jobs’s idea or whether it was just a logical move.)
These guest network features aren’t widely publicized or much used by average folks. I asked one big-name home-router manufacturer to estimate how many of its customers had set up a guest network, and the answer was a rough guess of 15 percent to 20 percent.
Some companies, from U.K.-based Fon to cable providers like Comcast*, are moving in the right direction. But there are strings attached that make them less attractive than free, open, Wi-Fi roaming across different routers and broadband providers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is trying, too, with its Open Wireless Movement, but is making slow progress.
Yet, just because it never took off doesn’t mean that tech companies shouldn’t try harder. There’s got to be a way to make it happen, so people needn’t rely on expensive cellular-data plans all the time, so cellular networks can be less congested, and so people can remain connected when there just isn’t decent cellular reception — even good enough for portable Wi-Fi hotspots. Why should you have to wait to get to your home, or your office, or to the nearest Starbucks, to get a usable Wi-Fi signal?
The obstacles are real. But they’re not insurmountable.
One problem is that tinkering with the settings on routers is, for most people, like figuring out whether to snip the blue wire or the red on a bomb in one of those movie thrillers. You might have a satisfying result, but you might cause a catastrophe (in this case, killing Internet access altogether).
Apple makes it relatively easy in its AirPort brand of routers, with a clearly marked field labeled “Enable Guest Network” in the “Wireless” tab in its AirPort utility app for Macs and iOS devices. But the key word is “relatively.” You still may have to tinker with other settings, and understand some network terminology. For AirPort owners, instructions and explanations are here and here.
This can and should be made dead simple.
There are other problems to be solved before people will share their Internet. One is that folks might reasonably decide that their networks will be hacked. So, even if they do bother to set up a guest network, they slap a password on it, and only make that available to known house guests to whom they wish to offer Internet service without giving out their main password, or allowing access to their files.
Another is that, unlike Mr. Jobs’s vision of iPhone users passing by for a quick check of email or other low-bandwidth services, people know that some of their neighbors will want to simply be free-riders on their pricey bandwidth plans. Few people want to make it easy for neighbors to suck up their bandwidth by, say, watching movies on Netflix day and night.
Nothing is hacker-proof, of course, but the tech industry should be able to make a convincing barrier between the two networks. And it should also be easy to allow home users, in a very clear, simple, way, to set bandwidth or time limits on the guest network.
The good news is that, as noted above, some companies are moving in the direction of shared Wi-Fi. Fon, which has been around for years, lets its members share Wi-Fi bandwidth, but only if they own a Fon-branded router or a third-party router with the company’s technology built in. Also, the service is mainly used in Europe, and has never caught on in the U.S., where there are so few Fon routers installed as to make Fon sharing largely unavailable. Just compare a map of Fon routers in, say, Paris, with one in Chicago.
Comcast is rolling out a guest-network service called Xfinity Wi-Fi Home Hotspot, but it’s meant for Xfinity subscribers, and requires enough setup that the company has a whole Web page devoted to instructions for different operating systems and devices.
(Both Fon and Comcast sell short-term passes to their services for nonmembers or subscribers.)
The Wi-Fi industry is also taking steps to make using public, commercial hotspots easier with a technology called Passpoint, or Hotspot 2.0, which automatically connects and eliminates clumsy login procedures when you’re at, say, a coffee shop or an airport. But you shouldn’t have to head for the nearest cafe when you need Wi-Fi.
Then there’s the Open Wireless Movement. It is swinging for the fences, trying to make truly free, open, cross-device and cross-provider sharing a reality. But it’s largely a geek project today, focused on developing firmware to essentially reinvent routers.
It’s time the big tech companies solved this problem, so that Wi-Fi sharing and roaming become a reality.
* Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.