At least once you’ve probably been out of the house or the office — whether traveling, commuting, running errands, or just exploring — when you realized that you’d like to complete a task on your smartphone and you need to connect to a Wi-Fi network. If you’re like most people, you’d like more options than having to track down the nearest Starbucks to find a hotspot ,or worrying about your security on a free Wi-Fi network. Wouldn’t it be great if you could access Wi-Fi anywhere?
Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs thought so. Jobs reportedly planned to figure out a way to provide everyone access to a free and secure Wi-Fi network that they could use instead of slower, more expensive cellular data networks. Re/Code’s Walt Mossberg recounted a conversation he had on the topic with Jobs, who envisioned how the establishment of “guest networks” on large numbers of home and small businesses’ Wi-Fi networks could enable iPhone owners, for example, to always find a Wi-Fi network within range. Jobs “planned to get other companies involved, in a sort of consortium” to figure out and implement a way to make a free Wi-Fi network secure and common.
While an open consortium for truly free, shared Wi-Fi has not (yet) been established, Jobs’ vision has partially come true: Apple and other manufacturers of wireless routers have adopted the concept of the separate guest network. As more routers, like the one you have in your home, have the option to establish a separate guest network, these guest networks are increasingly regarded as a tool for the establishment of wide networks of Wi-Fi hotspots. The Internet service provider can offer access to every hotspot to all of its subscribers so that these public hotspots — secure and separate from the router owner’s home network — could give you Wi-Fi in more places that you need it. This network of hotspots is the first option on our list of solutions that could bring you Wi-Fi access everywhere you go.
Option 1: Establish widespread guest networks
Though many routers include the option to set up a guest network, the guest network option goes largely unused by the average consumer. Mossberg notes that he asked a “big-name home-router manufacturer” for an estimate of how many of its customers had actually set up a guest network. The manufacturer guessed that only 15 to 20 percent had.
That’s probably partially due to consumers’ misgivings that a guest network would involve making a public network available for any passerby — or Netflix-addicted neighbor. But it’s also likely at least partially due to the complexity of actually sitting down and configuring the router to set up the guest network. While manufacturers should be able to create simple tools for router owners to set time and bandwidth limits for users of the guest network, or make it easier for users to create guest networks that safeguard everyone’s security, the tools aren’t quite there yet.
Only a few routers seem to have succeeded in making it easy for consumers to set up a guest network. Among consumers who do actively set up a guest network, many protect it with a password to make it available only to known house guests. Due to the practical difficulties, manufacturers are taking a different approach to guest networks — one that cuts out the plan’s reliance on users’ willingness to actively set up their own guest network. Comcast’s Xfinity Wi-Fi Home Hotspot feature automatically broadcasts a separate “xfinitywifi” network signal from every home router that any Xfinity subscriber can access. “Home is where the hotspot is,” Comcast’s page on the service boasts, but for obvious reasons, Comcast is interested less in altruistically offering free, open Wi-Fi networks than in adding services to attract more subscribers, and the solution is far from universal.
Fon, a carrier based in the UK, has had a program similar to Comcast’s for quite some time, though it’s primarily caught on in Europe with little traction in the U.S. Fon enables owners of one of its routers, or of a third-party router with Fon’s technology built in, to broadcast a separate signal for members and visitors to the network. Both Fon and Comcast allow non-subscribers to buy short-term passes to the network of hotspots broadcast from subscribers’ home routers. While Comcast and Fon may be pushing Wi-Fi access in the right direction, their hotspot networks, by nature, are still only available to subscribers. While provider-based home router hotspots may not be a solution by themselves, they could combine with a number of other options to improve connectivity.
Option 2: Improve commercial hotspots
Since it’s pretty clear that consumers would like to be able to connect to Wi-Fi when they aren’t at home or at the office, the industry is continuing to improve the technology that underpins public Wi-Fi at locations like restaurants, airports, and hotels. A technology called Passpoint streamlines the process of accessing public networks at coffee shops or airports. With Passpoint, users’ devices can automatically connect to the the hotspots run by their mobile provider, their Internet service provider, or even their employer, instead of manually finding and authenticating a network each time they want to connect.
Due to their relationship with the network’s provider, users don’t have to enter their credentials, or even search through the phone’s list of available networks to find one to join. (This is how Comcast’s Xfinity hotspots work, as an example, and once users have signed into one Xfinity hotspot, their devices will automatically connect to others when within range.) Not every smartphone or tablet is compatible with Passpoint, but as more devices support it, more consumers will be able to more easily and more securely connect to hotspots (though of course, there are still security issues to be aware of even when connecting to public networks that use Passpoint).
By making it easier for consumers to take advantage of the Wi-Fi available at commercial venues, the technology not only helps them find Wi-Fi when they need it, but also diverts some of the strain from cellular networks. But while the Wi-Fi Alliance describes Passpoint as “a key ingredient to Wi-Fi roaming standards currently taking shape across the world,” commercial hotspots are only part of the solution, as many of today’s mobile consumers aren’t at a café, a hotel, or a restaurant when they need to connect to Wi-Fi briefly.
Option 3: Build truly open, shared wireless networks
This is, in a way, the most ambitious option of the four. So it’s fitting that the Open Wireless Movement, backed by Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others, is perhaps the most idealistic of the groups currently working on an open Wi-Fi solution — and certainly the least commercially focused. The Open Wireless Movement’s website explains its vision for truly free and open Wi-Fi access:
Imagine a future with ubiquitous open Internet. We envision a world where, in any urban environment:
Dozens of open networks are available at your fingertips.
Tablets, watches, and other new devices can automatically join these networks to do nifty things.
The societal expectation is one of sharing, and, as a result, wireless Internet is more efficient.
The false notion that an IP address could be used as a sole identifier is finally a thing of the past, creating a privacy-enhancing norm of shared networks.
In its current iteration, the group is focused on incremental steps toward its sweeping goals. Under its Open Wireless Router project, participants are developing router firmware that the group describes as “open-wireless friendly.” They’re creating what’s essentially software to enable consumers to share a portion of their network for public use, regardless of whether the manufacturer actually built in a guest network option or not. The firmware is also aimed at making the network faster and more secure.
While the project seems esoteric, it has the potential to solve a lot of the problems with Wi-Fi sharing. On a fundamental level, the software could, of course, offer a simple way for consumers to enable an open network. But it could also give them a clear, accessible interface — which many current routers don’t have — to manage the open network and limit the bandwidth allocated to the open network. The project also aims to improve router security and provide automatic updates, which will make shared networks safer and more secure for all users.
Option 4: Build mesh networks to improve connectivity
Open Garden cofounder and chief executive Micha Benoliel reports for Gigaom that mesh networks are one solution that can help bridge the gap between demand for connectivity and the capacity provided by traditional Internet providers. Mesh networks can be pieced together from wireless devices — like Wi-Fi routers, but also including smartphones, tablets, computers, or even wearable devices — so that the devices connect in a peer-to-peer mode and share connectivity. As one device connects to the Internet, it can share that access with the rest of the network.
A mesh network can be completely decentralized instead of localized, and since only one device needs to be connected to the internet for the network to be connected, the mesh network is dependable even in the case of natural disasters. The networks can include a limitless number of devices, referred to as nodes, and a single network could include millions of smartphones. They are inexpensive to deploy, use Wi-Fi standards that are already in place, and require only software to get up and running.
However, as with all open Wi-Fi solutions, there are inherent security issues, and while mesh network proponents note that they’d prefer to connect to the internet through someone else’s devices than through an unknown public network, solutions for better security are necessary if device manufacturers and app developers intend to make the use of mesh networking a viable option. Another concern is that sharing service is more often than not prohibited by the terms of service set down by providers, and that’s a hurdle that stands in the way of Wi-Fi sharing and roaming solutions like mesh networking.
Ultimately, solutions for widespread Wi-Fi access will need to be both simple and secure to use in order for them to be practical to implement and use. The need for security is significant not only because consumers need to protect themselves and their information from hacking, but because it’s necessary to address the question of who is responsible and who is liable for any illegal activity carried out on a public Wi-Fi network.
Consumers are concerned about the prospect of being legally responsible for any criminal activity that occurs on their network, and many cite the possibility of guest users pirating digital content or downloading child pornography as a reason that they don’t want a free and open Wi-Fi network associated with their router and account. Laws vary, but for shared Wi-Fi solutions to take off, it’s likely that regulators will need to look with more clarity at who’s actually responsible for activity in a range of networking situations.
Some hybrid of the widespread use of guest networks and a number of other options could effectively enable Wi-Fi roaming across routers and providers. The concept represents a much-needed — perhaps even inevitable –development, even if progress so far has been slow. While you won’t be able to access Wi-Fi everywhere anytime in the near future, it’s still great to know that solutions are on their way.