Tag Archives: Wireless networking

Wifitising: Great Idea, or Daft and Dangerous?

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WiFi has become a commodity, something we expect to be able to find, but marketers are slowly waking up to its potential to get the message out—by renaming the service. But is it such a good idea?

A Dutch company, according to Adrants, has started changing the name of its WiFi service continually—both to promote items and to nag freeloaders into buying coffee:

By continuously changing the names of their store networks to such things as OrderAnotherCoffeeAlready, BuyCoffeeForCuteGirlOverThere?, HaveYouTriedCoffeeCake?, BuyAnotherCupYouCheapskate, TodaysSpecialExpresso1.60Euro and BuyaLargeLatterGetBrownieForFree, the chain is able to both promote items as well as guilt patrons into realizing free WiFi really isn’t totally free.

Some boring questions are not answered in the article, such as whether users find themselves bumped off the network when the name changes (I guess not) to whether regular customers complain that they have to change their WiFi settings every time they log on.

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And they’re not the first to try something like this: A German car rental company called SIXT has set up WiFi networks in airports with names promoting the car company’s brand. Select the WiFi network and you’re taken to the company’s home page.

The article doesn’t explain whether these WiFi networks provide real connections, or merely access to the company’s page. Needless to say, if it’s the latter any positive message may be undone. And, as the writer points out, this “wifitising” is a form of spam that people may not appreciate.

On top of that is the growth in dodgy WiFi networks that offer free WiFi but actually launch “man in the middle” attacks to eavesdrop on your passwords and other data as you use the network. A hacker last month, for example, accessed personal emails of guests using a U.S. hotel’s free WiFi network. A study by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research of 147 U.S. hotels found that only six of the 39 hotels (HTML version of the PDF file, which requires registerig to download) offering WiFi were encrypting traffic. It concluded hotels were “ill-prepared to protect their guests from network security issues.”

The problems with changing the names of WiFi networks are obvious: They further confuse the user and reduce the chances of a standard emerging that may reduce people’s vulnerability when using WiFi. Of course, anyone can give a WiFi an official-sounding name, so networks are vulnerable to start with, and the Cornell report shows that using even legit WiFi leaves users vulnerable. So it’s hard to see this wifitising trend—small tho it is—as anything more than a fad, because if it does catch on, it’s going to make using public WiFi more complicated and misleading, rather than less so.

Renamed WiFi Networks Guilt Freeloaders Into Buying Coffee » Adrants

Broadbangladesh

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Illustration IHT, by Felipe Galindo

I wrote a piece for the IHT on a company of expats bringing wireless broadband to their native Bangladesh. Would love to have gone there to have a look, but budgets aren’t what they were (love the illustration):

In Bangladesh, where less than 1 percent of the population has Internet access and where the rare broadband connection is prohibitively expensive, bridging the digital divide may require new approaches.

A group of Bangladeshi expatriates think they have found one that could work – a plan to bring affordable Internet access to their homeland through a blend of high-end wireless technology and social entrepreneurship.

Bringing Bangladesh into the Internet age – International Herald Tribune

‘Push Button to Connect’

One of the big holes in Wi-Fi setup has been security. In a lot of cases it’s not on by default and many folk have no idea how to set it up or even that their network is not secure.

Linksys reckon they have the answer with something called SecureEasySetup (SES) technology:

The SES technology enables users to create their wireless security protocols and set up their Wi-Fi networks by pushing just one button on the router and another on the wireless device being networked, the company said. The button enables the unit’s Wi-Fi Protected Access security and configures the network’s Service Set Identifier (SSID), eliminating the need for the user to manually create a passphrase to enable WPA protection.

Just push the button on each device and you’ve set up a secure connection between the two.

I like the idea of having a physical button, which removes the need for lots of fiddling about in design-challenged menus (most of the software that comes with routers seems to be have been designed by three year olds with premature acne.)

There is a downside to this, of course: It locks the user into buying both access point and Wi-Fi card from Linksys, otherwise it’s not going to work. And how would it work with more than one device? Could you add a non Linksys, SES-enabled device to a SES network?

But the button thing is good. People will like that. Could this kind of thing extend to other areas where technology runs up against usability? Could buttons make Bluetooth pairing easier, say? Press a button on each device simultaneously and hook them up?

Certainly the whole ‘button vs software’ thing has taken an interesting route. For a long time we thought it was better to have no buttons, or at least designers did. Macs have very few buttons, which looks great but isn’t always a good thing, especially if you can’t eject a bum CD, or the computer hangs. iPods are great examples of what to do with buttons, and later models cut down the number of buttons without cutting down the intuitiveness.

But elsewhere things have started reversing themselves. Laptops and external keyboards have toyed with the idea of dedicated buttons, but with mixed results. I’ve never really got excited about them. Some Logitech keyboards have lots of dedicated keys and even reassigned function keys (which are on by default, a rare example of Logitech silliness.) My ThinkPad has an ‘AccessIBM’ button and to be honest I’ve never figured out what it is. But the physical sound mute and volume buttons are necessary, because you may need to get at them quickly, especially if you’re in a meeting.

I certainly think there’s room, as we move more and more to wireless, for a standard button that creates a secure connection between two devices. It could even be protocol-agnostic: press it and the device does its best to connect securely to whatever other device is having its button pressed, so to speak, with whatever protocol it has at its disposal, whether it’s Bluetooth, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, InfraRed or whatever. Could that break the remaining logjams in user acceptance of these technologies?

WiPhishing: Threat Or Hype?

Is Wi-Fi being used by phishers and other identity thieves? Some folk reckon so, pointing to tricks such as the Evil Twin threat and something called ‘WiPhishing’, which, according to Information Week, goes like this:

“We call WiPhishing the act of covertly setting up a wireless-enabled laptop or access point for the purpose of getting wireless laptops to associate with it,” Cirond CEO Nicholas Miller said in a statement. “Hackers who are on a ‘WiFishing expedition’ may set the name of their rogue wireless access point (or laptop) to an SSID that is commonly used by wireless laptop users.”

For example, a WiPhisher could set the SSID of an access point or laptop to be the same as the default settings for widely-sold access points or hotspot services offered by vendors such as T-Mobile and Wayport, Miller said.

“Hackers are also likely to increasingly post common SSID names on their Web sites as this practice gains momentum,” Miller said.

I’m not trying to be cynical here, because I think Wi-Fi security is a real issue, but these kind of statements are more often than not made by folk who stand to gain the more afraid people are, because they sell ‘solutions’. The Cirond statement, issued on the PR businesswire on Feb 4, was quickly picked up by four or five industry websites including Information Week, SYSCON, Internet Telephony Magazine and InternetWeek (and now, of course, Loose Wire Blog).

So, threat, or hype? Probably both. So we should probably call it a Thrype.

Taiwan: First Off The Blocks With Dual Networks?

Taiwan has launched what it’s calling the “world’s first dual-network application service”, according to today’s Taipei Times (which charmingly, and perhaps accurately, calls it a Duel Network in its headline).

The network combines wireless local area networks (WLANs) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). In a demo set up in Taipei’s Nankang Science Park, workers have access to “various functions, including access to personal e-mails and instant messages or connection to any printer in the park through wireless transmission. Other services allow parents to view their children in the park’s daycare center through a surveillance system.” From what I can understand in the piece, the government plans to spend NT$7 billion to build the same thing across the whole country over seven years. Taiwan Cellular, the paper says, will roll out dual-network service packages after the Lunar New Year (early next month).

It’s not clear, and I’m not clear, about how exactly this works, and what it’s for. The point of dual-network devices makes sense — you can use them for VoIP on WLAN hotspots, and switch to cellular in cellular-only areas, but why have both technologies in the same place? I guess, as it implies above, the idea is to offer more options and services atop the existing structure. So you might prefer to have one data connection via GPRS, but print locally via Wi-Fi. Or is there more to it that I’m missing?

The Wi-Fi Revolution And Smart Homes

It always amazes me how many home Wi-Fi networks there are. I don’t do a lot of sniffing, but wherever I am I take a look and there they are, whether it’s a Jakarta towerblock or rural England. Wi-Fi, it seems, is as commonplace as any other kind of connection. And now market research company Park Associates seems to have confirmed it: More households, at least in the U.S., have set up wireless networks than cable, or Ethernet, ones:

This study, which surveyed consumers in Europe and North America on technology adoption and use, found 52% of U.S. households with a home network use Wi-Fi and 50% use Ethernet. By comparison, only 32% of Canadian households with a home network use Wi-Fi, 43% use Ethernet, and 26% were unsure which technology they were using.

No mention is made of European homes, but from what I can see, the rest of the world is not far behind. Interestingly, Park Associates credits the bundling of Wi-Fi kits by cable and telephone companies selling broadband service for the surge. Their hope: to bundle other ‘next-generation’ services using these networks, since they are supposedly easier to distribute via Wi-Fi than Ethernet. In short, the Wi-Fi explosion could bring the smart home a step closer to reality.

Wine By Wi-Fi

The Wine Spectator Online (via Boingo Wi-Fi Insider) reports that a Sonoma, CA, vineyard is using Wi-Fi to monitor growing conditions at their site:

The system uses 40 wireless units on existing trellising posts around the 30-acre vineyard fitted with sensors that measure microclimate data such as soil and air temperature and moisture content, rainfall and leaf wetness. The data is bounced from sensor to sensor sans wires, forming what is known as a Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET), which requires less power and equipment than networks using wires or radio transmitters.

Real-time conditions in the vineyard can then be monitored on a secured Web site. Data can also be poured into a spreadsheet for long-term analysis. The information can help vineyard managers make decisions about when, where and how much to water vines or spray to control mildew.

The system sends alarms via instant messaging software or cellphone. The article quotes Bill Westerman, who works for Calif.-based Accenture Technology Labs which set up the project, as saying that the system could be used in manufacturing, retail and security. “The advantage to wireless is that it allows companies to go places where it was previously too difficult or expensive to run wires,” he said. “It can also be implanted in new products so they can automatically communicate with their manufacturer when there’s a problem.”

WiFi Whackiness

WiFi is all very well, but I’d argue it’s still too tricky for us ordinary mortals to figure out. I’ve just spent the best part of a day trying to get a LinkSys WRT54G Broadband Router installed in my home network, and it took my resident genius Akbar to figure out that the cable provider had hardwired our setup so we had to try to trick the router into taking on the old address.

At least, that’s what I think happened: All we got from the superfast installer wizard was ‘You’re not connected to the Internet’ as we idly surfed the Web waiting for the wizard to complete its pointless and fruitless checks. Anyway, it’s working now, and it’s great, but I think LinkSys (and everyone else, for that matter) could do a better job of preparing us for oddities we’re likely to encounter.

China’s Static Mobile Phone, And Its Mobile Static Phone

One of the things I noticed at last week’s CommunicAsia expo in Singapore was the range of phones. And not just fancy handhelds touted by dancing, skintight woven women, although that did claim some of my attention. But China, for example, is pumping out machines that run the gamut of needs, including desktop GSM phones.

Guanri, for example, of Shenzhen, sells several phones that use either CDMA or GSM wireless technology for phones that either sit in your office, or work as payphones, both for public places and ‘supervised locations’, which I take to mean shops or kiosks where someone can make sure you don’t run off with the phone and where they rather than the phone takes the money you owe for using it.

I realise this isn’t anything new: Africa and poorer regions do a lot of this kind of thing. But I guess this idea of a GSM phone masquerading as a desktop phone is kind of new, and represents a challenge to China’s quasi mobile market, where a technology originally devised for Japan called  Personal Handyphone System (PHS) uses a Wireless Local Loop (WLL) to offer a sort of mobile access, at least when you’re in range of an antenna.

The idea, I guess is one of applying the principle in reverse — where you can only use the cellphone when you’re near a loop — so that your use of the phone is limited by the fact that it’s physically stuck to your desk. Either way you’re making the most of what is available — a network that is not particularly farflung, but more accessible than a landline for which you’ll have to wait several blue moons.