June 17, 2002
Wireless networks the next Napster?
I never thought I'd be referencing the SF Bay Guardian, but this piece actually gets the wireless network issue half-right (and half wrong.) While it's full of a bunch of nonsense about how the Internet was once free (there's no such thing as a free lunch!), broadband providers are "robber barons" and monopolies (how many "monopolies" do there need to be in an industry before they stop being “monopolies”?) and if only the city could regulate broadband our problems will be solved, etc., it is right to point out that wireless community networks are important developments.
Right now, if I were to share my 802.11b network with my neighbor it would probably be theft according to my contract with my DSL provider. I believe Covad is the only provider that lets customers share bandwidth this way. While I believe the companies ought to be able to sell me broadband services under whatever terms they choose (and I choose, as a customer), I think it is a mistake to ban this type of bandwidth sharing. Instead of looking at this as piracy, as the music cartel did with Napster, broadband providers should look at this as a great way to hook customers onto broadband service. Broadband needs customers, and any way they can get them will probably be good business in the end. These wireless community networks are what people want, can grow organically, and will help create a critical mass for the development of the sorely needed "killer apps." Rather than discouraging these networks, providers should be encouraging them and figuring out pricing mechanisms (such as per bit) that will pay off for them in the long run.