Users reject notion of 'parasitic grid'

A groundswell of dissent has emerged from the wireless community over the use of the term "parasitic grid," that otherwise refers to a movement involving users installing free wireless Internet access points.

Although some deride the implications of the term "parasitic," at the center of the debate is the impact that so-called free wireless access points based on the 802.11b standards will have on the rollout of 3G (third-generation) networks.

Tim Pozer, an active member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group (BAWUG), prefers to use the term "neighborhood area networks," which he says addresses the issue of removing or reducing the "last mile costs" associated with wireless or Internet connections.

Under this example, a home user with a permanent connection to the Internet via a DSL (digital subscriber line), for example, would deploy a wireless access point on his or her roof and allow either neighbors or passersby to connect via their PC or server to the Internet for free. Pozer observes technology such as reverse firewalls could also allow individuals to charge wireless access point users a nominal fee to split the cost of the "last mile" connection.

Pozer says he and BAWUG are one of many interest groups promoting use of the 802.11b technology because it's "the neighborly thing to do." For example, he offers a neighbor free access via his Internet as a way of returning a favor.

However, he doesn't believe assertions made in the media that widespread use of 802.11b, a standard for wireless Ethernet that works on an unlicensed portion of the wireless spectrum, will impact 3G. As Pozer argues, 3G is backed by billions of dollars in telecommunications carrier funding, is a coherent standard, and coalitions exist between cellular manufacturers. "3G has more coverage area, it's more coherent," he said.

"The reason why [the media] are ill informed is to think that a group of people using dissimilar login processes, [inconsistent] coverage area, and nonroaming capabilities in an ad hoc fashion will have any threat to 3G, you would have to be completely out of your mind," he said.

"Would we like to have that [3G] vision? Sure. Will it happen? No," Pozer said.

Other BAWUG members, such as Kevin Burton, a contributor to the Apache Software Foundation and founder of openprivacy.org, take a harder line with the "parasitic" debate.

Internet is designed to offer open communications, and likewise the idea of wireless networks is not "parasitic." "It seems to me that's the exact opposite," he said.

"It is companies like Pacific Bell that are parasitic, they are charging us," Burton argues. "In an organic network it doesn't cost money to run a network."

Burton subscribes to the term "Open Network Access Point," believing the scale that could be achieved by widespread adoption of wireless access point would be amazing.

But as with many stories, there is a dark side. Both Burton and Pozer agree individual providers of these access points, which can cost as little as US$150, must be aware of the legal implications.

The FCC determines a number of regulations for wireless use, while Internet access providers themselves typically detail an "appropriate use policy" that could exclude multiple-use Internet connections.

Both Burton and Pozer believe the time may come when the wireless access point movement will come under fire.

"The Internet has always been revolutionary," Burton said. "What you're seeing now is the old school revolting."

As a result, the same lawsuits brought against the likes of Napster, and more recently indicted Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, could be targeted at individuals or groups promoting or using the wireless technology.

"I think we'll come under fire," Burton said.

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