Wireless Pirates or Broadband Evangelists?

eLABorations: Are broadband providers turning away potential customers by cracking down on wireless community networks?

Computing without broadband connectivity is steerage-class computing, a reality thats driven home each time Im forced to accomplish something productive while on the road, dialed up at 20K bps—the fastest link that most hotel phone lines can muster.

In the two-week DSL drought that I endured the last time I switched residences, I scarcely touched my home computer. Without e-mail to retrieve or news to read or fresh source code to compile and try out, why bother?

And even though Im the designated gadget guru here at eWEEK, I must admit that the sorry, stagnant state of wireless data networks has begun to sap my enthusiasm for mobile devices. I was impressed by the 802.11b-equipped Toshiba e740 Pocket PC, but it can only take you as far as the coverage range of your home or business access point.

Thats why Ive been intrigued by the community wireless networking movement thats been catching on in scattered neighborhoods around the world, and why Im disappointed by the efforts that broadband Internet providers have been undertaking to limit the growth of these wireless networks.

Wireless networking gear based on the 802.11b standard has grown inexpensive enough—access points can be had for as little as $100—for any broadband Internet subscriber to afford them. Thus equipped, some subscribers have joined with their neighbors to provide wireless access to the Internet through their collective broadband links—usually in violation of the network service agreements by which theyre bound.

As our own Spencer F. Katt reported this week, AT&T Broadbands been cracking down on subscribers whove been sharing service in this way.

I understand that the performance of cable-based Internet service can be sensitive to heavy concurrent usage, so I cant blame AT&T for being concerned. However, I dont think that shutting down neighborhood wireless networks is necessarily in the best interests of broadband service providers. After all, these pirates could easily turn into paying customers.

Heres what I mean: With 802.11b capacity being built into an ever-larger number of laptops and mobile devices, and with the cost of WLAN adapters dropping precipitously, the population of users equipped to sample broadband across their friendly neighborhood wireless network is growing rather quickly.

Once those users get a taste of an always-on broadband connection, its tough to go back to dial-up. The speed of a community network, particularly a popular one, is no substitute for what youll get by ponying up the $40 to $50 per month for a legitimate broadband subscription.

While allowing wireless community networks to exist might offend the sensibilities of broadband providers whove programmed themselves to demand absolute control over their networks, these providers would do well to remind themselves that openness is what makes the Internet the invaluable resource—and as a result, the marketable commodity—that it is today.

Have broadband providers been short-sighted in their response to so-called Internet access thievery? Am I way off base? Drop me a line at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.