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Learning to Share Your Wi-Fi

While there are lots of hotspots out there, they don't exactly provide blanket coverage. Wouldn't it be nice if some private wireless networks were available for use by people who need Internet access?

by Joseph Moran

If you often find yourself on the road with a wireless-equipped laptop or smartphone, you probably spend a fair amount of your time parked at Wi-Fi hotspots. While there are lots of hotspots out there, they don't exactly provide blanket coverage, so finding one wherever you happen to be isn't always easy.

However, in any given location, chances are that personal Wi-Fi networks outnumber hotspots. So wouldn't it be nice if some of those private networks were made available for use by people who need Internet access?

Now they can. This year has seen the debut of several products designed to let people share access to their Wi-Fi networks with others, effectively turning them into hotspots. FON, WeFi, and Whisher are three firms that have recently entered the Wi-Fi sharing market (or are arguably in the process of creating it).

What's in It for You?
So why would you consider making your Wi-Fi network a hotspot? One reason might simply be the warm and fuzzy feeling you'll get from sharing resources with your fellow man or woman (after all, it seems to help sustain the open-source software movement).

But pure altruism really isn't everybody's thing, and if it isn't yours you might also consider a more tangible benefit. Specifically, sharing access to your own wireless network in turn gets you access to other people's networks. (Think of it as a sort of Wi-Fi quid pro quo.) If you're someone who travels periodically but not heavily enough to warrant paying for a subscription to a hotspot network, this can be a good way to get yourself some free Internet access on the road.

After all, hotspot networks typically charge anywhere from $20- $40 for monthly access (sometimes requiring annual contracts) or $8 to $10 for daily access. While not necessarily unreasonable, those fees add up over time and can be somewhat difficult to justify for those that need only irregular or infrequent access.

Before You Start Sharing your Wi-Fi network using one of the aforementioned products involve certain costs and ramifications, though, so it's not something that should be undertaken until you know what you're getting into.

For starters, most ISPs aren't particularly keen on having their customers share access to the Internet connections they provide. Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions (Seattle-based Speakeasy comes to mind), and the trend seems to be moving toward fewer restrictions. The odds are also relatively slim that your ISP will detect it or take action against you for connection sharing, but for now chances are that doing so means you'll be violating your ISP's terms of service.

If you want to get a shared network up and running quickly and without any up-front costs, Whisher is worth a look. The Whisher software (which is in beta and available for Windows, Mac and Linux) is a free download, and since it operates independently of your wireless hardware, it works with pretty much any Wi-Fi router or access point.

Registering your Wi-Fi Network with Whisher requires you to provide its name, physical address, and WEP or WPA encryption key (Whisher requires networks to be encrypted). Your network information is then added to a database with that of other Whisher members' networks. Since the database is part of the Whisher software, Whisher members can use it to find and log on to each other's networks for free.

At first blush, giving out your encryption key may not seem like a particularly wise thing to do, but it's not as bad as it sounds because your encryption key is known only by Whisher's software and aren't exposed to the member. Because they never actually see your key, Whisher members can't share it with anyone else. Whisher also lets owners of member networks limit access to specific users (via an IM-like buddy list) or block access altogether.

But there are still security issues to consider. Since you're giving other Whisher members access to the same network you use personally, your systems have more exposure risk than if your network were off-limits to strangers-- at the very least, properly-configured software firewalls are a good idea. There's also no way to limit the amount of wireless bandwidth used by Whisher members, so lots of simultaneous visitors could slow down your network.

FON FON's Wi-Fi sharing product uses hardware rather than software, which helps to mitigate some of the potential security and performance limitations of Whisher's approach. Using a specially designed router, FON provides a Wi-Fi signal that's divided into public (open) and private (encrypted) segments. This provides better security by letting you keep your own systems walled off from those of guests. You can also limit the bandwidth used by the public segment, guaranteeing you a certain amount for your own use.

Sounds good, right? It is, but there are a few catches. Not too long ago FON was giving away their routers for little more than the cost of shipping. These days though, you need to buy it at a cost of $40 (or $20 for those referred by existing FON members). The FON router also doesn't have quite as many features as a typical model from say D-Link, Linksys, or Netgear, though you can opt to keep your existing router and use the FON hardware as more of an access point.

If you'd rather make a few bucks by sharing your network, FON will let you do that too, by charging users $3 for daily access to your network (or $10 for five days) and splitting the net revenue with you. You're ultimate take is somewhat less than 50% after PayPal takes it's cut, and by charging for yours you'll lose free access to other FON networks.

WeFi's beta software (which is currently only available for Windows XP) offers roving users a way to find nearby free Wi-Fi networks as well as map their own for use by others. WeFi is similar to Whisher, but for now only seems to work with open (i.e. nonencrypted) networks. Since by definition an open network is available to anyone, not just other WeFi users, it's not the right choice for someone concerned about security.

There you have it. Those looking to share their own Wi-Fi networks and take advantage of others' have several choices. For more details on FON and Whisher, check out reviews of each at Wi-Fi Planet, and stay tuned for review of WeFi in the near future.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.

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