Good WiFi fences make good neighbors
When WiFi was first becoming a thing, it was kind of beautiful. It was communal. In densely-packed cities, it was implicitly shared. Personally, I had an unreliable DSL connection, and when it dropped out, I’d just hop on to the neighbor’s WiFi until it was fixed. It was the “can I borrow a cup of sugar?” moment in the virtual world. But without the delightful/messy step of actually meeting the neighbors.
Today, the WiFi density at my San Francisco house is ten times greater, but it’s a desert of neighborliness, since all the networks are locked down with passwords, and I don’t know which network belongs to whom. Thank goodness my cable carrier ISP is so reliable.
The weird project, Wifis.org, by Mathias Nitzsche in Berlin, brings neighborliness, and the concept of a backyard fence you can yell over, to WiFi. The idea is that you rename your access point to a Wifis.org URL, like Wifis.org/RafesHouse. Anyone in range of your network sees that as the identifier. When a visitor goes to that URL, they get a contact form.
A note entered on the form (like, “Can I get access to your WiFi? There’s a six-pack in it for you.”) is forwarded to you, and the sender doesn’t get your email or physical address. Once you, the WiFi owner, has the information, it’s up to you to make contact.
Sure, there may be ISP terms of service that forbid sharing (as especially re-selling) of bandwidth, and yes, if your WiFi is used to hatch a terrorist plot or download illegal or protected content, you’re on the hook for it. But as this service puts actual people together, I’d like to think that those are edge cases — like the very uncommon AirBnB user whose house gets trashed.
In a sanitized, rich neighborhood, a product like this might not go far. But in an apartment block or a location where people know, in their guts if not in the fronts of their minds, that they are all sharing in the adventure of making life work, it makes sense. Nitzsche says that it’s in developing economies where the product is, in fact, more widely used. Not everyone can get a network line dropped into their home with a phone call.
For those of us in tech havens like the Bay Area, Wifis.org brings the opportunity for physical neighborliness to an otherwise entirely walled-off, digital world.
Mostly I’m covering this idea as a reminder that WiFi, still being a fairly new thing, is highly unoptimized. That can be rectified. Connectify, which I recently covered, links networks together to improve bandwidth. This little project links people together in sort of the same way. And I just think that’s cool.
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