Networking: April 2007 Archives


April 21, 2007

Apparently the City of Boston's free wireless service has some kind of censorware on it, since it's blocking Boing Boing:

Jake tried to access Boing Boing from Boston's free WiFi network and got this notice -- topped by the seal of the Mayor of Boston no less! Banned in Boston -- first they came for the Mooninites, then they came for the Boingers.

Want to defeat censorware? Let freedom ring!

Update: Seth sez, "The phrase 'Banned combination phrase found' is a characteristic message of the censorware Dan's Guardian. It seems some combination of words has triggered the 'isItNaughty' flag (that's what they call it). It would be an interesting legal case to see if you had the right to file a Freedom Of Information Act for the settings and block logs to find out the exact reason you got censorware'd."

This seems like a not particularly attractive development. Ubiquitous Internet (free or otherwise) is a really cool thing and is going to enable all sorts of applications we've just begun to experience (and of which today's low-speed cellular Internet access is just a pale shadow). But it's going to be pretty lame if that network can be arbitrarily censored by random bureaucrats. I know, I know, this is just the free network: you can always pay for some sort of commercial wireless. That's not really true, though; a taxpayer subsidized free WiFi network is going to make it pretty unattractive for commercial providers to enter the market, so you'll just be stuck with the censored version unless you're willing to plug in somewhere.

Moreover, I'm not a constitutional lawyer (or indeed any kind of lawyer), but it's not entirely clear to me that this is constitutional. The First Amendment requires that government fora have viewpoint neutrality (as a somewhat strained analogy, consider the situation with advertisements in subways, where the government has been forced in at least some cases to allow pro-marijuana reform advertisements once they allowed any advertisements). Given that unlike subway advertisements Web access doesn't require subjecting others to your speech, it would seem that there would be a stronger case that censorship was impermissible here. Stepping back from the constitutional question, it's pretty hard to understand what the rationale for banning Boing Boing is (though I've heard it suggested that it was for making fun of the Great Comedy Central Boston Bomb Scare of 2007, which I suppose is possible, but isn't something you'd want to get out of you were the guy who made this decision.


April 19, 2007

Matthew Yglesias links to Tim Lee's post about wireless networks:
As I argued in an op-ed last year, this is silly. Accessing someone else's wireless network, especially for casual activities like checking your email, is the very definition of a victimless crime. I've done the same thing on numerous occasions, and I deliberately leave my wireless network open in the hopes that it will prove useful to my neighbors.

The only concrete harm opponents of "piggy-backing" can come up with is that the piggy-backer might commit a crime, such as downloading pirated content or child pornography, with your connection. But remember that there are now thousands of coffee shops, hotels, and other commercial locations that offer free WiFi access, and most of them don't make any effort to verify identities or monitor usage. So someone who wants to get untraceable Internet access can go to any one of those establishments just as well as they can park outside your house.

Which isn't to say that there are no reasons people might not want to share their network connections with the world. If sharing your Internet access creeps you out, by all means set a password. And there's almost certainly work to be done educating users so that people are fully informed of the risks and know how to close their network if they want to do so.

So, I certainly agree that piggy-backing isn't much to worry about [*], but that doesn't mean that it's a great idea to run your wireless network completely open. Most home access points are some kind of NAT, which provides a substantial amount of security againt attacks from the Internet, at least primitive port-scanning type attacks. If your machines are properly secured, this isn't necessary, but if they're not—as is reasonably common—then it provides a useful backup.

On the other hand, if someone is on your wireless network, then they will get a private address on the same network block as you and be able to talk directly to your machines, which is a substantially inferior security situation. So, as a belt and suspenders move, it's certainly understandable why one would want to keep people off one's wireless network. This becomes even more true as people start moving hardware that would usually be physically wired onto wireless networks as an alternative to running Cat5 through the entire house.


April 4, 2007

Hillary Clinton is pushing some sort of rural broadband service plan:

The Rural Broadband Initiatives Act. This legislation will extend and improve access to broadband services in small towns across America. It creates a policy and action framework to ensure that the federal government employs an effective and comprehensive strategy to deploy broadband service and access in the rural areas of the United States. The bill will also establish a Rural Broadband Innovation fund to explore and develop cutting edge broadband delivery technologies to reach underserved rural areas. The Rural Broadband Initiatives Act has been endorsed by the Communications Workers of America.

Speaking as someone who suffered with ISDN for years and just cut over to (my only real option) Comcast "business" service at $120/month (a significant savings) in order to get decent speed and some static IP addresses, I've just gone one question: "Palo Alto is rural, right?"


April 3, 2007

This is interesting. Aircell is going to offer airborne WiFi:
AirCell paid $31.3 million at an FCC auction last year to take over radio frequency once used for expensive air-phone service and reallocate it to Internet and cellphone service. The Internet service already has the approval of both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration. Mr. Blumenstein says AirCell, a closely held Colorado company that provides communications for private jets, is building out its network of 80 to 100 ground towers and talking to multiple airlines. No customers have been named yet.

"It can't happen soon enough," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel technology analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

AirCell will install equipment on airliners that will act as a WiFi hotspot in the cabin and connect to laptop computers and devices like BlackBerrys that have WiFi chips. In all, it will cost about $100,000 to outfit a plane with less than 100 pounds of equipment, and the work can be done overnight by airline maintenance workers, AirCell says.

What makes the service particularly attractive to airlines is that they will share revenue with AirCell. The service will cost about the same as existing WiFi offerings. Mr. Blumenstein says it will charge no more than $10 a day to passengers. It will also offer discounted options for customers and tie into existing service programs like T-Mobile, iPass and Boingo. Speeds will be equivalent to WiFi service on the ground.

At some level this is super-convenient and $10/day is pretty good. I've certainly had plenty of times when I was on the plane and realized I'd forgotten some file and wished I had Internet access. Even lousy Internet access would be pretty convenient in such cases. On the other hand, one of the nice things about being on a plane is that it forces you to actually work on whatever it it is you're supposed to be working on rather than surfing the net. AirCell says they're planning to block VoIP service (it would be sort of interesting to hear exactly how they're going to do that...) but of course there is plenty of interest in cell service, especially in Europe:

OnAir and AeroMobile both install "pico cell" receivers on planes that connect to cellular phones, allowing them to operate at low power to minimize technical problems. The pico cell then routes calls to cellular networks through a satellite link.

Only about 14 calls or fewer can be successfully made at a time per flight, and airline crews can turn the system off during takeoff and landing. If you make the 15th call, you'll get some kind of indication of "no service."

Apparently they're going with a circuit-switched model with admission control, which is pretty old-school PSTN. If people were using Skype, they'd get a quite different experience: as the network got more loaded people would just get worse call quality (dropouts, etc.), but nobody would ever be told "no". This is of course the way that traditional telephony networks work, but as far as I know there's no technical reason you couldn't offer a packet-switched type service that interfaced to the airplane picocell and then bridged back to the GSM network (though you'd need to do something more sophisticated than just pass the media packets back and forth, silence suppression, etc.) That's probably a primarily cultural issue—the providers seem fairly closely tied to the cell phone providers, who are big on this kind of reserved bandwidth system (typically under the name of quality of service).