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A Walk on the Wildside

I had thought I had seen it all. Crop circles you may be familiar with but how many of you know about ‘Warchalking’?

Should you happen to have a (WIFI 802.11b) wireless network installed in your building have you noticed any strange chalk marks on the walls outside? No? Have a good look next time you walk into the office.

Warchalking according to the Website “Is the practice of marking a series of symbols on sidewalks and walls to indicate nearby wireless access? That way, other computer users can pop open their laptops and connect to the Internet wirelessly. It was inspired by the practice of hobos during the Great Depression to use chalk marks to indicate which homes were friendly”.

Of course, the Prime Minister wishes to give all of us Internet access by 2006 but even though government is tacitly interested in the potential of ‘Public Access’ WIFI points; a subject raised in a conversation I had at No10 last year, I suspect that the joy-riding other people’s bandwidth isn’t quite what Downing Street had in mind.

Already, we have our own modest wireless ‘underground’ springing-up in the UK and if you visit you can see, that rather like plotting the position of speed cameras on the M25, there’s another little group of enthusiasts, mainly students, I suspect, broadcasting the locations of accessible wireless networks and inviting others to hop-aboard for the ride.

The Warchalking debate does raise a couple of interesting arguments, the first of which is the generally pathetic level of security awareness associated with wireless networks. The second questions whether ADSL is really the solution for the population as many people, including me, still can’t justify the incremental monthly cost of Broadband from home.

What if government chose to take a radical step forward and lead by example, embracing wireless networking, while simultaneously encouraging the ‘Public Sector’ hospitals, schools, town halls, universities and so on, to install WIFI Networks and somehow ‘share’ bandwidth on a local basis? Already new Wireless LAN equipment, based on the draft 802.11g specification, offering theoretical speeds of up to 54Mbps in existing 2.4GHz frequency range is being launched in the UK.

Without much doubt, 2003 will be very much the year of wireless networking and this in turn will usher-in one of those transformative changes in computing, as both multiple-device mobility and ‘always-on’ connectivity become increasingly important.

Warchalking is however an expression of a much larger problem that needs to be solved. Is the expanding wireless ‘dial tone’ a ‘free’ wave that anyone can surf and how, much like the plot of William Gibson's futurist novel, 'Neuromancer', do you prevent smarter members of the public from stealing a ride on your network?

Gibson has, by coincidence, just started his own 'Blog' and the link is given above.

So while business needs to think seriously about tightening-up any and all network security, wireless or otherwise, government needs to think about a future where wireless access is increasingly pervasive and where borrowing bandwidth from the company or hospital next-door is rather more attractive than paying £25.00 a month for a fixed-line ADSL connection.


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