Opinion

Thought for the day:Walking the chalk

The practice of warchalking has highlighted a number of bandwidth and security issues, says Simon Moores.

I had thought I had seen it all. You may be familiar with crop circles, but how many of you know about warchalking?

If you have an 802.11b wireless network installed in your building, have you noticed any strange chalk marks on the walls or on the ground outside? No? Have a good look next time you walk into the office.

Warchalking, according to www.warchalking.org, is the practice of marking a series of symbols on sidewalks and walls to indicate nearby wireless access. That way, other computer users can open their laptops and connect to the Internet wirelessly. The practice was borrowed from Depression-era hobos who used 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.

We already have our own modest wireless underground springing up in the UK. If you visit www.consume.net you can see 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 raises a couple of interesting issues, the first of which is the generally pathetic level of security awareness associated with wireless networks. The second question is 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 embrace wireless networking, while simultaneously encouraging hospitals, schools, town halls, universities and so on, to install WiFi networks and, somehow, "share" bandwidth on a local basis?

New wireless LAN equipment, based on the draft 802.11g specification, offering theoretical speeds of up to 54Mbps in the 2.4GHz frequency range, is already 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?

So, while business needs to think seriously about tightening up 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 a month for a fixed-line ADSL connection.

What's your view?
Is warchalking a threat or a blow for freedom? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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This was first published in January 2003

 

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