Whither Wi-Fi, Alameda?

Lamenting the lack of robust open local Wi-Fi.


— I want to complain.
— You want to complain? Look at these shoes! I've only had them three weeks, and the heels are worn right through.

— Monty Python's Flying Circus, "The Argument Clinic"

The thought occurred to me the other day that considering it's an online publication, I've seen remarkably few items in Patch about internet and related technology. So…

A couple of months ago I signed up with the mini-gym up at . One day I decided to bring in my iPod Touch to help occupy my mind while I was working on my body. Now, it isn't a  smart phone; it's Wi-Fi only for internet. But when I looked for Fit-Lite's Wi-Fi network — I mean, they're a gym, don't all gyms have Wi-Fi? — I couldn't find it. Turns out they don't provide one. Fortunately for me, one of their neighbors had an open network I could join (I couldn't tell whose, it had the default network name).

But I wasn't only disappointed that Fit-Lite didn't offer Wi-Fi, I was a little surprised that South Shore itself didn't have an open Wi-Fi network. Some malls do provide one — not all to be sure, but a few (e.g., Bayfair). They're relatively inexpensive and simple to set up. I would expect that these days, it would be a customer amenity like parking or air conditioning.

I think having the mobile internet so dependent on the cell network has been a mistake, although it's easy to understand why it evolved the way it did. (Note that we put cameras in our phones, not phones in our cameras.) I'm not enough of an engineer to say for sure, but I have the suspicion that the cellular telephone network is, um, suboptimal for internet communication (e.g., bandwidth is very narrow, compared with Wi-Fi — potentially, anyway). I am sure that when the modern cell-phone network was being developed towards the end of the last century, very few people were thinking about mobile internet. Mobile internet has been grafted onto the cell-phone network like Bruce Campbell's chainsaw-arm in the "Evil Dead" movies.

Indeed, the wireless carriers have been so overwhelmed by mobile internet they've had to invent all sorts of bizarre pricing plans and bandwidth restrictions, essentially strangling their own best revenue source. Thus, perhaps belatedly, the major players have been shifting their emphases to Wi-Fi. But free, open Wi-Fi remains the exception rather than the rule by quite some, making it considerably less convenient to use than the cell network.

A couple of definitions here: A "free" network is one that does not require a subscription, directly or indirectly; this does not preclude some manual "login" procedure, like the entering of a "Wi-Fi code", or an email address, or checking an "I agree" box. An "open" network is one that does not require such a login procedure. (A network can be "free" but not "open"; the converse, a bit trickier.) Examples of the former are Starbucks or the Library; of the latter, City Hall and Apple Stores.

The movement for community-provided Wi-Fi seemed to wither on the vine when nobody could figure out how to make money off it. Thus it's left to the individual coffee shop, or bar, or retailer to decide individually whether to offer Wi-Fi and under what restrictions. Of course, there's no consistency.

I love Peet's. Really. I've been a fan ever since moving to the area, and have held Peet's stock on occasion. As Tom Peters once said on the Charlie Rose show, Peet's taught Starbucks how to do coffee. (If you're a coffee fan, you want to know the role Alfred Peet played in moving America from Folger's and percolators to Starbucks and home grinders.) But they have the second lamest Wi-Fi I've run across. It takes forever for their login window to appear, the connection is slow, and they limit you to an hour. The signal is so weak that more often then not, sitting on the bench outside Peet's I get a better signal from Starbucks. Sometimes even when inside. (This is not limited to the Alameda store, I've discovered.)

The concern, of course, is that some hacker will use your network to commit some nefarious deed, and not only is it troubling that the nefarious deed was committed, but the use of your network might, potentially, make you liable for any damage resulting from the commission of said nefarious deed. And this was a real concern  — ten years ago. Trust me on this one, network security is much more sophisticated than it was then — as are the hackers, who are, consequently, no longer interested in your bush-league, penny-ante network, hardly worth the bother of breaking into.

I found this CNET piece encouraging (and the inspiration for this post). The apparent improved security of the new standards might encourage more small networks to open up, although the article focused mainly on networks owned and operated by an established cell-phone carrier. It didn't seem to discuss otherwise-owned networks, like Peet's or the Library. So I guess we'll still have to wait awhile for our pocket videophones.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ken Dorrance February 13, 2012 at 05:57 PM
WiFi is alive and well at Island City Cafe on Blanding and Broadway. It is free and fast!
Jack Mingo February 13, 2012 at 07:15 PM
It does seem that city-owned wifi that served our major shopping / congregating areas would be worth the relatively modest cost. In the meantime, I am grateful for the number of businesses and residences that keep their Wifi password-free, making it possible in a pinch to find wifi connections in most neighborhoods.
Jeff Mark February 13, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Well, whaddya know... As I entered Fit-Lite this morning, Artie and Angie informed me that they had received a memo from South Shore announcing they would be providing free Wi-Fi by about the beginning of the Spring. We'll see how "open" it turns out to be (see above), but nonetheless, Bravo! Kudos! Credit where credit is due, all that stuff; good for them! Meanwhile, I didn't realize I had such power. Talk about being in tune with the zeitgeist! We'll have to see how that Lotto ticket I just bought does...
Yenju Chen February 17, 2012 at 05:02 AM
Kudos, Jeff. That's cool. I was just watching this yahoo video: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/upgrade-your-life/banking-online-not-hacked-182159934.html And apparently, if you're doing on-line banking, don't do it at an open wi-fi. You are much safer using your cellular signal.
Jeff Mark May 11, 2012 at 06:24 PM
South Shore's W-Fi is live! The network is called "ASSC - Wireless", and there's a innocuous login screen — signal is a little weak inside some stores, but nice and strong on the main plazas. Thank you, ASSC.
Mark Lenthen May 24, 2013 at 06:38 PM
Hacking over WIFI is a huge threat. This happens at hotels and coffee shops all the time. The best thing you can do is install security software from sites like http://www.wifisugar.com


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