Adventures in Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi warriors are giving high-speed Internet away for free—by blasting it wirelessly across your city. Is this the next high-tech revolution—or a big new security threat?

Tim Pozar and his Wi-Fi antenna dish are broadcasting Internet access to any computer with a wireless-access card.

Tim Pozar and his Wi-Fi antenna dish are broadcasting Internet access to any computer with a wireless-access card.

Photo By Saul Bromberg

An ice-cold wind slams into Tim Pozar as he climbs onto the roof of the radio station. “Whoa,” he grimaces, holding on to his cap as his elbow-length brown hair flaps about. “This is pretty nasty. It’s like 40 miles an hour up here!” He’s dressed in a black and blue windbreaker festooned with a small protest button, which shows an icon of a plane and the words “suspected terrorist.” As he reaches the rooftop, he staggers over to join two young men who are fiddling with a pile of electronics and trying to keep from being blown over the side.

“Man, it’s like sticking your head out the window of a car!” says one, a 27-year-old named Dan Fitzpatrick, laughing. “I can’t breathe.”

This isn’t surprising, given that they’re halfway up to the clouds. Pozar and his team have clambered up to one of the highest places in San Francisco—the summit of a mountain that lies just outside the city. Here, at 1,300 feet, the men have a small, 2-foot-wide antenna dish, which they’re installing on a pole. Pozar, the bespectacled 45-year-old who leads this little mission, picked this spot for its panoramic view of the city. That’s why the radio stations have installed their antennas here, too. The roof is covered with them, looking like rusted, 10-foot-tall tin drums laid on their sides. (They’re pumping out so much power that I later find ghost traces of Top-40 music burned audibly into the background on my interview tapes.)

In comparison, Pozar’s antenna looks tiny—almost like a toy. But it has a much more unusual purpose. It is connected not to a radio station but to a super-fast Internet connection. When Pozar turns the antenna on, it will spray that Internet signal for up to eight miles in every direction, blanketing almost every square inch of San Francisco. Anyone can buy his or her own little $60 antenna dish, hook it up to a computer, point it at the mountain—and then surf the Internet at lightning speeds, downloading music or checking e-mail, the computer connected invisibly through the ether.

And the zinger is that Pozar is giving away this broadband for free. Normally, you’d pay $50 a month to a telephone or cable company for this kind of access. But like a digital-age Santa Claus, he’s dropping a gift from the sky. He figures the mountaintop antenna will be able to handle up to several thousand users at a time.

“They’ll pick this up way out there in the downtown area,” he says, pointing off to San Francisco’s skyscrapers. “And also over there—in my neighborhood, down near the ocean. And look over there. Those are the really underprivileged areas,” he adds, pointing out the working-class flats near the base of the mountain. “They’ll get it, too. Not a lot of people online down there right now.”

But why the giveaway? Pozar is classic high-tech idealist, the type who thinks the Internet is practically a civil right and a social force for good. With the “digital divide” widening, Pozar regards his mountaintop project as a radically new form of social change: a way to ensure have-nots, such as local schools desperate for bandwidth, can hook up. As the Internet’s oldest rallying cry goes, “Information wants to be free.”

But most importantly, he’s doing it because he can—thanks to the “Wi-Fi” revolution.

Pozar’s project is driven by Wi-Fi, the hottest new trend in technology. Introduced four years ago, Wi-Fi—short for “wireless fidelity”—is a cunning way to share Internet access over radio waves. It works the way a cordless phone does: You take your Internet connection, buy a cheap $100 Wi-Fi node and broadcast the signal to any laptop or computer equipped with a wireless-access card. Presto: No more need for cords and cables. You can roam for several hundred feet and surf the Net from your front porch, the living room and the bathtub.

More importantly, you can share the joy. Wi-Fi signals leak all over the place, which means a neighbor or passerby can pick up your signal, too. This has created an exploding culture of sharing and mooching—with an estimated 24,000 people having set up Wi-Fi nodes in the United States, the vast majority of which are open for anyone to use. Experts figure there will be hundreds of thousands in a year. If the last high-tech revolution was about “getting wired,” this one is about cutting the cord.

But now a movement of Wi-Fi fans is asking a much bigger question. If you can broadcast a signal around your house—why not around the city? Why rely on major corporations to hand out Net access at high prices? Up until now, high-speed Internet service largely has been rolled out by cable and telephone giants. “But with Wi-Fi, it’s like being your own phone company,” brags Matt Peterson, a 21-year-old friend of Pozar’s who helped build the mountaintop antenna. Across the country, neighborhoods full of geeks have reached the same conclusion, setting up their own “community networks” that blast free Wi-Fi into the streets. Some city politicians are even wiring their downtowns now, using free Wi-Fi as a form of urban renewal—a way to lure in the increasingly large tribe of road-warrior businesspeople who love to check e-mail while sipping lattes at sidewalk cafes. A new Senate bill argues that widespread Wi-Fi is nothing less than the key to kick-starting the economy, by letting people work freely, instantly, anywhere.

Yet, just like when the Internet first hit the mainstream 10 years ago, this ferment is alarming those in power. Phone and cable companies are targeting Wi-Fi sharers as pirates. Security officials fret that free Wi-Fi could provide criminals and terrorists with a powerful new tool: Net access that is anonymous and untraceable. It is, as it were, the age-old clash of cyberspace: tinkering geeks vs. security hawks and corporations.

But if nothing else, the geeks have the head start.

After three hours on the frigid roof, the three men finally have their antenna in the right place. They retreat downstairs into the warmth of the radio building, flip open their laptops and blow on their fingers to defrost them so they can type.

Pozar studies his screen for a few seconds and then smiles. “We’re getting something,” he says. “It’s a signal! It’s a big, fat signal!”

Peterson launches a Web browser to test it out. He picks up the mountaintop signal and logs on, and soon we’re downloading the trailer for the most recent X-Men movie—and watching a group of outcast superheroes battle for justice.

Pozar hardly looks like a revolutionary. He’s reading a map, but he’s so shortsighted that he needs to zoom his nose down to an inch away from the map and peer out over his John Lennon glasses. At 6 feet 2 inches, he towers over many people, yet he is so unwaveringly quiet and polite that his strongest swear word appears to be “jeez.”

Tim Pozar braves the elements up on the roof of a San Francisco radio station in order to spread the Wi-Fi signal.

Photo By Saul Bromberg

Intrigued by the radio industry, he took a job as a disc jockey out of college and then trained as an engineer. For the next 20 years, he crawled up thousand-foot antenna towers in brutal storms to fix shorted-out wires. To reach one busted antenna, he once had to helicopter into a remote wooded area and then cross-country ski for five miles. “For a radio engineer, that’s about as James Bond as it gets,” he jokes.

He takes a reporter into his cluttered basement, crammed full of old reel-to-reel tape recorders, to show off his latest invention: a robot deejay. It takes songs off his computer, picks a theme—“Classical at night; alternative rock during the day”—and then announces each pick in an automated voice. It feeds the signal into a small, low-power FM transmitter Pozar swiped from an old radio station. The result is his own personal FM station, broadcasting just far enough so he can tune in using his own radios upstairs. Sometimes, his immediate neighbors tune in, too.

It’s a neat stunt, to be sure. But it also embodies the shift in high technology that is taking place. The wizards who built the Internet were experts at computers and hard-wired phone systems. But the new wizards of Wi-Fi are those who, like Pozar, understand radio waves—how they travel, bounce and transmit information.

Pozar originally got the urge to send Internet signals through the air during the early 1990s, when he co-founded one of San Francisco’s first-ever Internet service providers. They were wrestling with something known as the “last-mile” problem. Pozar’s company had leased a super-fast Internet line at its downtown office, the type you can share with thousands of users. But to reach a customer’s house, the signal had to travel the “last mile” over phone or cable-TV lines, which meant those telecommunication companies controlled the show. Pozar began wondering whether he simply could take those companies out of the loop—by sending his Internet signal through the air, the same way radio stations broadcast FM.

Break the last mile, he figured, and you break the power of those communications giants. But wireless-data equipment cost thousands of dollars per house back then, “nothing a mom and pop shop could afford,” he recalls. The last-mile problem is even worse in poor areas—which sometimes don’t even have phone or cable lines in the first place. On a trip to a Navajo reservation, Pozar realized how desperately the residents needed Internet access for educational reasons. “They have an extremely limited amount of educational resources: maybe a chair and a pencil and a piece of paper, and that’s about it,” he says. “Yet there’s a wealth of content online they could start using for a relatively low cost. So, why not get this to that population?” He began hunting for options cheap enough to work.

In 1999, things changed overnight—when Apple released the first cheap Wi-Fi node. For only $300, anyone could set up a wireless zone and roam around his or her home or office. Within months, upstart Wi-Fi companies began making a blizzard of devices for PC computers.

“And that was when things really blew up,” recalls Cory Doctorow, the outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil-rights group. “You used to be stuck at your desk if you wanted to be online. And I’m online basically every waking minute. But then—boom—Wi-Fi’s here, and you’re roaming.”

Doctorow quickly discovered the everyday and weird joys of Wi-Fi. He’d sit with his laptop in front of CNN and run Google searches on news items. While on the road, he hit upon Wi-Fi signals everywhere. During cab rides in Manhattan, Doctorow found he could check his e-mail at every red light, by using the hundreds of connections leaking out of nearby apartments. One study of open Wi-Fi nodes found them in places ranging from a pool hall in Hawaii to a barbershop on Long Island. Walk around with a laptop and a Wi-Fi card these days, and it’s like spying into a new, invisible world, where pockets of Internet access haunt the streets like spirits.

Small community groups across the country had begun to experiment with wiring up their neighborhoods, producing free “community networks.” In New York, a group of techies wired up Bryant Park, and now up to 60 people a day use it to check e-mail or surf the Web. Intoxicated by the strange ease of Wi-Fi, zealots have delighted in pulling increasingly extreme stunts: One California programmer modified an empty can of Pringles, turning it into an antenna that can pick up a Wi-Fi signal from two miles away. In February, a group of Oregon computer users put Wi-Fi into their cars—allowing them to e-mail each other and swap music files between vehicles, all while racing 60 mph down the highway. “We sort of figured, ‘OK, sure, this is a little crazy,’” admitted one of them, as he showed me one of the wireless sedans. “But who wouldn’t want Internet in their car?”

For Pozar and his colleagues, Wi-Fi community networks are about nothing less than regaining control of cyberspace. Cable companies—the main providers of fast broadband connections—now quietly place limits on the activities in which home users can engage, Pozar notes. They’ll let you download at super-fast speeds, but they place limits on what you can upload—what you can send to the outside world.

“They want you to consume but not produce. They want to push at you but don’t want you to push back,” he says. That may not seem like a big deal now, but as more everyday communications, including video news, move online, Pozar sees these limits as a looming free-speech issue. Wi-Fi offers an elegant way out. A local community could pool its money, buy its own direct connection to the Internet and toss the cable company overboard. Pozar envisions communities that can create their own local TV news, broadcast solely over local Wi-Fi. In Seattle, a group of hackers is setting up equipment to send phone calls over computers, using Wi-Fi that blasts the signal to friends a city away. “We won’t need a single inch of telco [telecommunications company] copper wire,” boasts Matt Westervelt, a 30-year-old Seattle programmer.

You’d expect to find this antiestablishment vibe among goateed hackers. But one of the strongest drumbeats has come from none other than Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell). He marvels at how his own home Wi-Fi node has changed his life: “It sounds kind of corny, but I’ll even surf sites in bed with my kids now.” In the last year, Powell has littered his speeches with praise for Wi-Fi’s revolutionary potential. “Me and my neighbors can start experimenting instead of waiting for Verizon to invent things and then force-feed it to us,” he said. “This is a way of democratizing [the Internet]. It creates more competition, and that’s good.”

Many cities are already giving it a shot. Long Beach recently set up free wireless access on a major downtown street, as a lure for business-convention attendees. The city’s economy slumped when Boeing left and the dot-com boom imploded, “and we’re just trying to get back out of that,” a city official who helped set it up tells me. Donations covered the equipment and half the Internet connection, so the total cost to the city is a mere $4,000 annually. He laughs when he tells me the figure: “It’s amazing. When we first sent out a tender for someone to do this, the bids were for like $275,000. So, we thought, ‘Well, why not do this ourselves?’”

In San Francisco, Pozar, too, is talking to local politicians about intriguing ways to use his mountaintop signal for public safety. Currently, police and fire departments use an antiquated, slow-as-molasses data link, which can send only basic plain text to police cars and fire trucks. The mountaintop signal, in contrast, instantly could distribute high-quality mug shots or let firemen share area maps in emergency situations. “I would have loved to have seen this technology around for the ’89 earthquake,” Pozar says. “There was so much confusion about what happened and who was supposed to do what, because they couldn’t send rich data around.”

At Intel, company Executive Vice President Sean Maloney giddily imagines setting up a “Wi-Fi umbrella” over each city and letting law-enforcement agencies play with it. “You turn the security cams in banks into Web cams, so police can get pictures of perps on the fly,” he riffs. “And you know how the military drops flares so they can see at night? Imagine dropping dozens of Web cams on a crime scene, that broadcast what they’re seeing, using Wi-Fi.

“It’s like the Web browser back in 1994,” Maloney gushes. “The ideas are just bursting out.”

We’re in a hotel, watching a gang of hackers try to poach a Wi-Fi signal. One of them in horn-rimmed glasses points a small dish antenna out the hotel window and feeds the signal into a laptop.

“Anything yet?” he asks.

Tim Pozar shows off the “guts” of the electronic equipment installed to access the Internet.

Photo By Saul Bromberg

“Nope,” replies his partner, typing on his keyboard, his black baseball cap shading an unshaven face. “Oh, hold on. There’s a Linksys out there—and I think I can get it.”

It is the Sunday after Pozar turned on his mountaintop antenna, and he’s come to a conference of Wi-Fi enthusiasts at the downtown Marriott. The small room is crammed almost entirely with young men in an array of goatees, chunky glasses and black T-shirts with slogans (one reads “Evil Genius In Training”). They are the vanguard of the public-Wi-Fi revolution, groups of techies who have set up free wireless networks in their cities, from Seattle to New York to Sonoma County. Each one carries around a laptop he or she has festooned with stickers, the way rock stars decorate their guitar cases (“Got Wifi?” asks one, parodying the ubiquitous ad for milk). Yet the event has a weird, gentlemanly spirit; it’s like a meeting of an amateur-scientist society in Victorian England, except with tattoos. “Some pretty smart guys here,” Pozar whispers at the back, as he kneels on a chair in the back with Peterson, frantically typing his presentation.

There’s just one snag: The conference room itself has no Internet connection. The hotel charges $495 to use its broadband connection, and because it’s a volunteer event, nobody had the cash to pay for it. So, the attendees do what comes naturally: They cop a free signal. As they twiddle the antenna, John Richey, a technologist with Vivato—a local company that makes Wi-Fi equipment—scans the list of Wi-Fi nodes pouring in over his laptop. Within a minute, he shouts and pumps his fist theatrically: “Yes! We got Net! We got Net!”

Within seconds, 20 people in the room are using the signal—pilfered from some San Francisco resident who lives across the street, who probably left his or her Wi-Fi connection open unintentionally and who likely does not even realize what’s going on.

Scenarios like this make security experts shudder. Today’s Wi-Fi toys may be easy to use, but they’re also riddled with security holes. When you buy a Wi-Fi node and plug it in for the first time, it invariably is set to “open” mode, which means anyone can surf your signal. That’s fine if you intend to leave it open, but most users do so accidentally: They’re not even aware they could set up encryption to keep strangers out. Some studies suggest that more than 80 percent of all Wi-Fi nodes are left open.

At one point, I join Martin Pack—one of the group who’d installed Wi-Fi in their cars—for some “war driving.” That’s slang for riding around town with an antenna, checking to see which buildings emit a signal. We pull out of the hotel in downtown San Francisco and are barely 10 blocks away when Pack points to the list of signals on his laptop screen. “We’ve picked up 68 new, just on this loop,” he marvels. “Look: It just completely lit right up. That’s another big business district, and a lot of these companies, more and more, you see employees jumping on to wireless networks.”

For security mavens, this is a potential nightmare. Leaving all Wi-Fi open, they warn, hands a dangerous tool to cyber criminals—because it gives them quick and anonymous access to the Internet. To launch a cyber attack, such as a worm or virus that infects millions of computers, a criminal merely could drive up to someone’s house and tap into his or her Wi-Fi signal. The attack would appear to have been the work of the hapless resident.

“Then they can disappear, reappear in another place, continue what they want to do and disappear again,” says Daniel Devasirvatham, a vice president at Science Applications International Corp., a technology company whose major customer is the federal government. Devasirvatham, who has advised the Department of Homeland Security on Internet issues, warns that this makes Wi-Fi particularly useful for terrorists. Terrorists avoid normal dial-up Internet accounts, he says, because those leave traces of where the terrorists operate. The 9/11 hijackers avoided detection by using rented computers at Kinko’s copy shops. But open Wi-Fi gives them tens of thousands of easier alternatives. “Just a few years ago, we used to have the same problem with cordless phones,” Devasirvatham notes. “Before we had digital encryption, people would cruise around looking for dial tones to make long-distance calls. People would look at their bills and go, ‘Why do I have all these long-distance charges?’”

Corporate espionage and vandalism are even likelier threats. If a computer with open Wi-Fi doesn’t have a firewall protecting it, a malicious hacker easily can sneak in and steal data—or destroy it. Bill Shore, a special agent in the FBI’s Pittsburgh office who works in cyber crime, says federal agents have done their own war driving and found many corporations hadn’t bothered to secure their Wi-Fi. This spring, a school in New York left its Wi-Fi open and exposed its records. And even if companies have in-house security, if their employees access sensitive data at home using Wi-Fi, company data goes spilling out. “They’re sending a signal out their front yard,” he notes. “You could just drive up and sniff it. All you need is some hacker kid.”

Wi-Fi fans are aware that, used improperly, Wi-Fi is an insecure technology. But they regard it essentially as not a big deal, saying the enormous benefits outweigh the risks. Terrorists, Pozar notes, don’t need his mountain signal for anonymity: “Any Tom, Dick or Harry can go into a library and connect to the Internet or go to a coin-op kiosk.”

More to the point, community-network zealots say their goal is to provide more anonymity. Given that many Net service providers keep logs of where you surf, Pozar and his colleagues regard it as their duty to provide the opposite: Net access where nobody snoops on you. “Anonymity is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” notes the EFF’s Doctorow. “This is one of the things about all civil liberties. The presence of civil liberties is always socially harmful, but the benefit outweighs the harm. Free speech is socially harmful because people can say bad things, right? But the absence of the ability to speak your mind is worse for our society than the presence of people who say bad things.” Wi-Fi exemplifies the current clash between civil liberties and safety: At the precise moment the government is straining to monitor everyday movements, the technology is making society more trackless.

But there’s one other elephant in this living room: theft. When someone leaves their Wi-Fi node open, even accidentally, they’re usually breaking the contract with their Internet service provider. “Somebody’s got to pay for that, and it’s not free,” warns Jeff Zimmer, a spokesman for Time Warner’s Road Runner Internet service. Time Warner allows—even encourages—each household to share its $50-per-month signal with family members. But not outside. Strangers who drop by to check their e-mail on that signal are technically breaking the law, too. Last year, Time Warner found that a dozen free-Wi-Fi activists in New York not only were sharing their Time Warner broadband but also were advertising it openly. The company fired off cease-and-desist letters threatening legal measures if the activists didn’t close off their nodes (they did).

Free-Wi-Fi activists frequently defend the theft of bandwidth. Like Pozar, they give their signals away legally—by buying (or having donated) access to the Internet’s “backbone,” a wholesale connection that can be shared without limits. They can essentially ignore Time Warner. Pozar’s donated signal costs anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month, depending on how heavily people use it. That’s a lot of money, but as he points out, even if he had to pay for it, he could just find a hundred people to chip in 10 dollars apiece, and they’d still have enough bandwidth to share for free with strangers, in a sort of hippie co-op model.

This, ultimately, is the subversive allure of Wi-Fi: It makes the prices that telco giants charge for Internet access suddenly seem artificially high. Time Warner’s broadband connections are $50 a month because they have to pay to run a company, maintain the cable beneath city sidewalks and offer customer service. With the community Wi-Fi model, bandwidth could be distributed so much more cheaply that it becomes akin to a utility service, like water or electricity.

But for all their idealistic fire, free networks face one final, serious problem: They are not yet terribly practical. They require a volunteer group of geeks to run the thing. And then they face a potential “tragedy of the commons”: Pozar’s mountain would be overwhelmed if tens of thousands of people all logged on at once. Worse yet, they’re clunky. To tap into the mountain—or most of today’s free, community networks—users have to buy an antenna and wire it to their computers (or build one from a Pringles can). Fun for techies, perhaps, but laughably unworkable for the average person. Even Brewster Kahle, the San Francisco software millionaire who donated the bandwidth for the mountain, is unsatisfied with the progress of the San Francisco project. “We’re still in the ‘kit’ stage. It’s not good enough,” he complains. “We’re still hot-wiring and hot rodding it. It won’t take off until the average person can buy a simple device, put it on their roof like a satellite-TV antenna and forget about it.”

In this sense, Wi-Fi eerily mirrors the thrills—and limits—of the Internet in 1994. Back then, anyone could publish online, acquire a global audience and sprint laps around old-style business. But the sheer task of setting up a Net connection was too difficult for most people. It wasn’t until America Online became popular, making it point-and-click easy, that average Americans swarmed online—and paid AOL handsomely to do so. Wi-Fi is a new medium, full of giddy, revolutionary promise. But can it be fulfilled with these community efforts, these digital barn-raisings?

This is why communications companies are not sweating about free Wi-Fi—or at least, not admitting so openly. Stunned by the spread of free Wi-Fi, dozens of startup firms have begun rolling out their own “hotspot” networks in cafes or airports and charging road warriors to use them. The free folks may have been first out the gate, but the capitalists aren’t far behind. “Free networks aren’t competition,” argues Larry Brilliant, chief executive officer of Cometa Networks, one of the largest new Wi-Fi startups. His aim is not to bring Internet to the masses but to bring it to businesspeople who crave connections safe from hackers. Brilliant argues that much of today’s free Wi-Fi soon will dry up, as telcos crack down on the illegal sharing of their signals. That will leave only two styles of Wi-Fi: companies selling the access; and Pozar’s brand of free networks, the soup kitchens of the Internet. “I’m a great fan of the free-Wi-Fi world,” Brilliant adds. “Everyone has a different vision on how people will use Wi-Fi, and it’s probably a conglomeration of them all.”

Pozar is already planning new antennas on other nearby mountains. Tristan, a 21-year-old programmer and friend of Pozar’s, has set up an antenna on his porch. He picks up the mountain signal and hands me the laptop so I can check my e-mail.

“The mountain’s three miles away, but it’s faster than my DSL here at home,” he says. He swings the antenna away and sweeps it across his neighborhood. On the laptop, Wi-Fi signals from his neighbors wink on and off like spikes on a Geiger counter. “It’s amazing,” he marvels, “how much of it’s out there.”