Search your possible wireless connections now–provided you’re nowhere near a cafe or a fast food restaurant hotspot–and chances are you’ll find a range of tantalizing options: a “Welcome to the Nuthouse” or a “UAJ7899” or maybe one of those mysterious “Free Public WiFi” networks. But none of them are likely to be free or public; chances are they’re all locked behind unguessable passwords. We are strangely territorial when it comes to our wireless networks. The idea of someone siphoning off our precious bandwidth without paying for it is, for most people, completely unacceptable. But the Open Wireless Movement wants to change all that.
“We are trying to create a movement where people are willing to share their network for the common good,” says Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the movement’s leaders. “It’s a neighborly thing to do.”
That’s right, upstanding citizen of the Internet, you can be a good neighbor just by opening your wireless network to strangers. Or so the line goes. The ultimate vision is one of neighborhoods completely void of passwords, where any passerby can quickly jump on your network to read the news, use Google Maps to find directions, or check their email.
At stake, the promoters of open wireless argue, are the health of communities in a digitally divided America. The U.S. currently stands ninth in a ranking of developed countries for broadband access, which is increasingly important for job seeking or school work. Currently 119 million people that live in the U.S. don’t subscribe to broadband Internet, and 19 million don’t even have the option to get it. A more open network could help kids do their class assigments without having to huddle over a table at McDonalds. And during disasters like Hurricane Sandy, an unlocked Wi-Fi connection could mean an extra lifeline to the outside world.