Selfish WiFi Sharing

I’d like to share my internet connection over WiFi, but there are a couple reasons I don’t.

  1. I don’t want it to impact the bandwidth I have when I’m using my connection.
  2. I don’t want them to use it in such a way that it triggers my ISP to throttle my connection.
  3. I don’t want to be held responsible for what people do on my connection.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I’d like to be able to share without it negatively impacting me.  I feel like a lot of people would also share their own connections if it were easy to do and didn’t have negative consequences.  I also feel that it should be entirely possible to do this!

In (1), what I really mean is that my use of the connection should get priority over whatever random strangers I’m sharing with.  Maybe it’s my neighbors, who don’t have a connection of their own, or maybe it’s just someone passing through, looking for a few minutes of WiFi to check their email.  There’s plenty of time during the day when I’m not using my connection at all, and plenty of time when I’m just doing some light surfing.

What I want is a WiFi router that supports this kind of prioritizing.  Set up and broadcast two different SSIDs: one for priority traffic, one which just gets whatever bandwidth is left over.  The priority channel gets normal encryption and access control, the shared channel is unencrypted.  Maybe I’d call the shared channel “Spike’s Free WiFi.”  The quality of that connection would fluctuate wildly, depending on whether or not I’m filling up the priority channel, but hey, it’d be free.

For (2), I’ll start off by saying that net connections in the UK have advantages and disadvantages over those in the US.  I think they typically come out slightly cheaper per MBit of connection speed, but most ISPs have annoying “network management policies.”  These include throttling connections if you use push or pull too much data during peak hours, and, I suspect, if you use particular protocols, like those that run P2P services (I’ve noticed severe slowdowns when I put up a bittorrent client or the BBC iPlayer Desktop application, even before I’ve moved enough data to trigger the limits detailed below).  For the most part, ISPs are relatively transparent about their traffic management with respect to peak hour use (see for example Virgin Media’s), but I would like more detail.  Like, the kind of detail that would allow configuration of a router to keep strangers using the connection from getting my connection throttled.  In particular, a clear statement about how different protocols trigger throttling, if any.  If UK ISPs are going to go down the road of advertising “Unlimited” plans, but actually enforcing limits by throttling connections, then they should publish enough detail to allow customers to configure tools to avoid those limits.

(3) is one which needs a legal solution, rather than a technical one.  Basically, what is needed is either legislation or legal precedent that establishes that simply providing internet access doesn’t make a person liable (in both criminal and civil senses) for what is done by others over that connection.  ISPs enjoy this legal protection, as do other providers of communication services—you can’t sue the postal service if they deliver a harassing letter sent to you by someone else.  I know of no cases where a person operating an unencrypted access point has been successfully sued or prosecuted for what others have done on the connection, but there are particularly worrying measures being considered.   At the top of the list are the so called “3 strikes” proposals where being accused of sharing of copyrighted works over a network connection 3 times can get your connection terminated.  I think this is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but it would effectively kill the idea of sharing your network connection with strangers—which would be a real shame.

If you walk down a city block or residential suburb with a WiFi sniffer these days you’ll find dozens of operating access points.  Imagine how much coverage could be achieved if everyone got into sharing the bandwidth they had going spare.  Coverage would be patchy, and speed unreliable, but it would be free and leverage a piece of tech most people will be upgrading over the next few years anyway.  Crowd-sourced municipal WiFi!

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