Don't Bogart my air -

Don’t Bogart my air


I spent the last couple of weeks in Rhode Island, taking care of my fiance who is recovering from surgery. Sitting on her couch, laptop propped on my knees, I was surprised to see the wireless icon illuminate. XP informed me we were connected to the 'net, pushing 11 megabits per second though the ether via some unknown node.

Traceroute showed we were into a Linksys router connected to a Verizon DSL line. I have no idea who owns the connection or where the router is located. But thanks to either a generous soul or sloppy security anyone within range had a broadband net connection.

I was left somewhat befuddled: what ethical action should I take? Turn off the wireless hardware in my computer to avoid “stealing” bandwidth? Suck down the usual avalanche of email? Go hog-wild surfing the 'net? (For thoughts on the legality and ethics of WiFi see the Warchalking legality FAQ (“warchalking” is making chalk marks on the sidewalk to delineate the locations of wireless computer networks).

Happily my fiance has a permanent broadband connection on the computer in the other room so it was easy to defer the moral considerations. But the wide-open WiFi link, and many articles about warchalking and other exploitations of WiFi, left me wondering about the shape of wireless in the future.

Today we have an insane medley of economic models for the net: a T1 line might cost thousands per month, yet DSL offers comparable speeds for a mere $40. Cable is similar — as is a slow AOL dialup link. Wireless at Starbucks via a T-mobile hotspot) will run you an extra $30/month, plus another couple of hundred for Caramel Macchiatos. Yet if you're lucky enough to be in range of an open WiFi link, it's free.

The future will be driven more by embedded applications than PCs. Our smart devices will require ever more connectivity, a connectivity that will be provided primarily via wireless links. The cost of adding a physical, wired, connection will always limit deployment of smart connected apps; wireless eliminates these costs.

The best analogy for the 'net of the future is — air: apparently free, equally available to rich and to poor, to PCs and to embedded sensors. Like the oxygen in air that sparked the explosion in evolution of complex life forms, ubiquitous and free WiFi will form the fabric upon which we technologists will build the future.

Just as all of us breathe an unmonitored amount of air without paying a monthly or per-liter fee, WiFi will — and must — be open for all. Today over half the RTOSes in use are homemade, in part because low-cost embedded apps cannot afford even nominal royalty charges. A per-byte or per-month cost for 'net access will be equally deadly to a huge range of simple applications.

We'll pay for it like we pay for the air. The EPA is nominally the nation's guardian of our atmosphere, and is funded by taxes. Someday a similar federal agency — or a huge telecommunications monopoly whose existence and dominance are guaranteed by law — will provide or at least coordinate 'net access. Taxes, collected via your 1040 or your phone bill, and hidden product costs (like a car's catalytic converter) will pay the costs.

In a few years the ethics will be clear: equal access for all. Instant-on computers and long battery lives will keep our PC-like devices hooked up all the time. Embedded systems will chatter with each other, in a web of connectedness that today's WWW barely foreshadows.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback

Hi Jack,

here is a murky – as usual – opinion from Hungary:

1. Our governments provide us a lot of things (education, law enforcement…) “for free” of course. WiFi could be the same. But the more you get “for free” from the government, the closer it is to…communism.

2. If you get something “for free”, you can not swear at the quality. (We have a lifetime experience.)

3. Free web access via government owned servers? The government would love it, because this would be a perfect “Big Brother” tool. Encryption is forbidden, of course!

My opinion is that if you have the choice, prefer the freedom, the chaos, to the nice, government organized solutions. Otherwise you will be a “Duracell” in a terrible machine. (Matrix)

Learn from the lessons we learned under the Soviets!


Sandor Fule

“Don't Bogart my air”

I hope that this vision does not come true. The very image of government control AND management of this is frightening. Besides, if access is free all restraint on usage will end. Where would all that bandwidth come from? How would the limited bandwidth be allocated? PLEASE SAVE US FROM MORE GOVERNMENT.

Mark Boyles
Senior Engineer
Ford, Bacon & Davis

Jack Gansle writes:

“In a few years the ethics will be clear: equal access for all. Instant-on computers and long battery lives will keep our PC-like devices hooked up all the time. Embedded systems will chatter with each other, in a web of connectedness that today's WWW barely foreshadows.”

I hope and expect that this prediction will come true. In the meantime, the ethics are none-the-less clear, in my opinion. Unless I know that a connection is freely and knowingly offered, I won't use it.

Somebody's paying for it. TANSTAAFL*.

*Acronym for “There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch,” from Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress –ed.

Al Balmer
Sr. Software Engineer
Balmer Consulting

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