Wifi is everywhere but I can't get online

Like many geeks, one of my favorite hobbies is to go war driving.  For years, I occasionally drive around town and even other towns just to see where and how many wi-fi signals I can get, but it isn’t as entertaining as useful as it used to be.

There are two main things I enjoy about looking for wifi, seeing all of the strange and unique names that people set as their SSID and finding open wifi networks so that should the need for one ever arise, I know where I can find one.  While I still enjoy the first, the latter has become much harder.

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a couple of dramatic shifts when it comes to wifi.  When I first started war driving, I noticed that very few people had wifi despite the fact that laptop sales were on the rise.  Not long after that, wifi started to become a bit more common to the point that for a good portion of the town, I could detect at least one hotspot.  Slowly more started to pop up but I would estimate that only around 20% had any sort of encryption or protection on them at all.  Once in a while I would see some WEP encryption or at least a changed SSID but nothing that would keep even the newest of hackers out.  Over the past year or so, I have seen a major shift.  Not only has the number of wifi hotspots increased dramatically, but the percentage of encrypted access points has jumped to closer to 90%.  I find this to be both a good and bad thing.

For years, I have been a proponent of locking down wifi networks mainly with WPA encryption mainly for security purposes, but it seems that my effort has come back to bite me.  While stuff like this does help keep the harmful hackers at bay, it hurts those that desperately need wifi but have no ill intent.  There have been a number of times in the recent past that I have spent a considerable amount of time searching for an open wifi network or at least a starbucks because I need to get on the internet to find a place on Google maps or to get a bit of information from my email.  If I could find open wifi hotspots as much as I can find closed ones, I often wouldn’t be forced to drive all over just to get online.

I believe that this could actually lead to more illegal activities than it will stop.  Certainly it is harder to get into networks (assuming you use WPA since WEP is useless), but considering the vast majority of encrypted networks that I find are using WEP, cracking into the network for internet access almost becomes an option.  I am certainly not recommending this practice since it is illegal (not that that has ever stopped me before, something that the podcast listeners will understand), but I certainly sympathize with those that are forced to do it because they need something and can’t find an open access point.  I believe that you should be able to get online anywhere at anytime and for a number of reasons, that is not possible anymore.

What do I propose to solve this problem?  Businesses should put open wifi in all of their locations for customer convenience.  I’m not saying that this should be mandated or that companies should risk the security of their network for a couple of customers, but I do think it is a big benefit for customers.  I think that this message applies mainly to restaurants, coffee shops and pretty much everybody that serves some sort of food.  Personally, if I find a restaurant with free wifi, I am far more likely to eat there than someplace else because then I can take my laptop or at least my iPod Touch in and get something accomplished while I am waiting for my order.  If I am in a jam, need internet access and don’t have time to go in, I will still sit in the parking lot and use the wifi, but I always make sure to go back at a later time and go in and purchase something.  Providing free wifi will get my business almost every time.  The cost of providing free wifi to customers is very little, and for nearly all businesses is likely to pay off, especially when you have customers that would like to get work done while they are at your establishment.  I completely believe this will pay for itself many times over, so if you own a business, install wifi for the sake of your customers!

Free wifi for everybody!