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.



15 comments
bono
bono

I concur with Walt's thoughts on using Wi-Fi as a complement to Mobile Broadband (or cellular data networks for Americans), however I thinks it's difficult to go the HW way. 

I am using an app called Instabridge; http://instabridge.com/en/. I hope Instabridge adds a shaping feature or cap on how much data a guest could use, then you solve the problem with data hogs.

GeneralKrax
GeneralKrax

Reading articles like this makes me see the US as a third world country. Expensive mobile internet, low speeds and caps.


I don't know anyone who uses WiFi outside of their home here in my country. I pay 50 € a month for all my internet. That includes 1 Tbit/s home connection, the 4G contract for me and my wifes phone that also includes 10.000 minutes of calls each, free texts, and a separate 4G mobile WiFi i use when I travel at work. And it's all unlimited usage, not fair usage, no limits what so ever. As much as you can use with full speeds all this for 50 € a month. So that's one 1 Tbit connection plus three separate 4G plans for 50 € thats approx $66/month total.


I mean the US really needs to get a grip. The country that provided us with the internet to start with should be number one and not at the bottom of the list in the western world.

InfoStack
InfoStack

So few people relate Jobs' forcing of AT&T to enable layer 2 choice to the end-user as a fundamental step in the smartphone's success.  It's debatable how successful the smartphone would have been without this open or equal access.   With the net neutrality debate this should be central on people's minds.

Y. Huang
Y. Huang

Yes, it is time for Open. When you leave home, your network was left behind, you cannot carry your Wi-Fi to everywhere, but under the help of the open wireless network community, your sharing will become your saving, and later on you can withdraw that from other members network.

For the security issue, there will be one eco system to be built-up, not the present guest network, not enterprise-driven free wireless network, but the community between the network owners and the network access requester. The roles are changed instantly, when you left your home, you will become a requester to hunt for the wireless network, but at home, definitely the wireless network is your property.

For the security issues, we do have much clever solution than no-password wireless network. Talking is talking, actions and investment drive us forward and better.

jparr
jparr

Since your signup so awesomely wipes out my post text, let me RETYPE it after signing up.... THANKS!!

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1.  As mentioned above, bandwidth leeches DO exist!  There are people who will use everyone else's bandwidth, without paying for their own.  I'm already bandwidth-challenged, between Netflix, Steam, and Playstation Network, and the last thing I need is someone doing these same things on my guest WiFi segment.


2.  The homeowner is responsible!  When you sign up with your ISP, you sign a waiver explicitly accepting responsibility for what YOU do with YOUR internet connection.  If a "guest" on your WiFi does something malicious or illegal, YOU are responsible.  The cops aren't going to ask you about your guest WiFi... they will simply get YOUR name from the ISP, look up YOUR information, get a warrant, break down YOUR door, and seize all of YOUR computer / network equipment.  Even with a "click-and-accept" page with acceptable terms of use, you would have to keep detailed, individual subscriber information, which MIGHT help you avoid jail time.


3.  There is significant risk to the "guest".  Each device is configured differently, and having a plethora of devices and services means that a misconfiguration is quite possible, especially for someone non-technical, who accepts the default settings.  Couple that with the possibility of "evil twin" networks (due to the fact that guest networks can't be password-protected), the guest could be making a big mistake if they use your WiFi to check their e-mail, facebook, or bank account.  There is a fairly significant risk that the homeowner won't adequately firewall the guests - that they might be able to connect to the homeowner's internal network, or to other guests.


Open, shared home WiFi is just a bad idea.

A better idea is for companies like AT&T and Time Warner to provide "pay as you go" hot spots embedded within neighborhood infrastructures.  With Wireless-N and AC, you can get a decent connection several blocks away.  This also provides an alternative for homeowners whose internet drops - they can pay for a few hours of service on another provider's network.

marc45
marc45

Any mention of Comcasts NETFINITY Wi-Fi system should be accompanied by warnings about the security problems. One has to do with evil twin networks, not unique to Comcast, but still a problem. Another has to do with the fact that you login using your Comcast userid/password meaning that if a bad guy got ahold of it (first issue) they can read your email, see your billing data and add HBO to your account. Worst security issue relates to using the system when away from home and not needing to enter a password, the second time and later. How can this work? With bad security. Long discussion of this at Computerworld

http://blogs.computerworld.com/mobile-security/24073/comcast-xfinity-wifi-just-say-no

Brad Choate
Brad Choate

Nope. Just like I wouldn't want someone to pull up to my house and use my garden hose without asking to wash their car.


Guest networks are for house guests. If you're walking through my neighborhood, ask me politely for the password and we'll see.


From the other side, I don't trust open WiFi access points and you shouldn't either. There's a HUGE security risk there-- perhaps the house has left the network open so they can record activity. Who knows? No thank you.


immovableobject
immovableobject

Opening your WiFi network to the public is noble but naive. given the current climate


If a stranger uses your network to illegally share movies, music, or software, you could be slapped with a copyright infringement suit.  If someone accesses child porn, you could have all your computer equipment confiscated and examined.  If suspicious communications are detected (the NSA monitors all), a SWAT team could invade your house.



Drew75
Drew75

Open, unencrypted WiFi sounds like a potential security/privacy concern. 

hjfisher2
hjfisher2

Walt,   Some Terms of Service for Internet providers have strict terms about illegal activity, and responsibility for that resting with the customer.   For example, Verizon FIOS here https://my.verizon.com/central/vzc.portal?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=vzc_help_policies&id=TOS


I call your attention to paragraphs 4 (2) and 14.    I have set up my guest network at home, and would never allow the public to use it.   Think about someone parking on the street late at night downloading child porn.   Regards,  Harry


JoelY
JoelY

 I don't disagree with open wifi except I live in a neighborhood and not every parent wants their kids using someones open wifi from their home.  If a family is using OpenDNS or some other parental control mechanism, I don't want to be the one providing their kids the work-around.  They have a right to be the parent and it is not my right to take that away from them.

JefinLondon
JefinLondon

The UK has this pretty much rolled across the country already.


I can bounce from one Open BT hotspot after another.


Get with it USA!

wa1oui
wa1oui

One thing you haven't taken into account with an open guest access (which I approve of), is the bandwidth it could take from a customer's limit. I have Comcast's non-limit of 250G (they've suspended limits and have trials around the country to figure out what they are going to do. I come quite close to this amount each month, and would hate to have an unknown guest push me over the edge. I do have the guest account (protected) but it is used for known visitor's smart phones, and so doesn't add much to my usage.

Wobbly
Wobbly

@jparr I was going to write this same note, thanks for doing all the typing for me. Particularly for points #2 and #3 above.


With the NSA and the FBI (via NIT) collection IP addresses at the rate they are, try to keep in mind that your IP address, when you are out on the internet, is the IP address of your WAN connection to your ISP.


They don't know if it was a wired connection on your router, the primary network, or the guest network. It is all the same WAN IP address. It all traces back to you from your ISP. So if a 'guest' accesses an illegal site, or commits any crime, while connected to your WiFi, the authorities are going to visit your house, and they will have proof positive that the activity originated from your internet connection.


As to point #3, unless you are using a VPN to reach your providers, you should not connect to any personal service (email, bank, retail site) over any open WiFi spot. You are completely open to packet sniffing and MITM attacks. Don't even open your email app.

Y. Huang
Y. Huang

@Wobbly @jparr How do you think on WPA2 protected wireless community? All routers leverage WPA/WPA2 access tokens, while the key sharing is much more like Airbnb. VPN is offered as service to protect your network traffic even in any public network.

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