GPSolo Magazine - June 2005
Wired Over Wireless
I recently moved from my heavy-duty (about ten-pound) desktop replacement to a true notebook computer. With a six-hour battery, this 2.8-pound wonder can go anywhere I go, fitting neatly into my portfolio or briefcase. Taking advantage of its built-in 802.11b/g WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, I should theoretically be able to connect to the Internet anywhere wireless signals lurk. A good thing? You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the “anywhere and everywhere” option is for you.
Many of us have wireless networks at home and/or in our offices. We can find public WiFi access points (WAPs or hotspots) most places we go—hotels, airports, coffee houses, cafés, bakeries, public buildings, and even baseball stadiums and golf courses (which may provide carts equipped with GPS to measure the distance between tee and pin). Courthouses are adding WAPs to courtrooms for official personnel, and airlines are beginning to roll out WiFi service on some flights. Some access is free, and some isn’t (more about that later). As of mid-April 2005, approximately 25,400 hotspots were available throughout the United States. An April 2005 listing on JiWire ( www.jiwire.com) noted the five U.S. cities with the highest number of hotspots: New York, 865; Chicago, 419; San Francisco, 368; Seattle, 353; and Houston, 294.
That said, at the end of April 2005, Verizon announced that it will shut down the 380 free hotspots in New York City by the end of June—hotspots that it had enabled two years earlier for its DSL customers. Claiming that “usage didn’t live up to our expectations,” Verizon will steer mobile customers to its broadband cellular wireless service (see below).
Most public hotspots use the older 802.11b wireless network standard, running at up to 11 Mbps with 64-bit encryption. Those of us with the incessant need for speed, however, have opted for the faster 802.11g devices, running at up to 54 Mbps, or so-called Super-G 802.11g+ devices, at up to 108 Mbps with 128-bit encryption. Because pricing of the newer 802.11g chips has dropped, now roughly equivalent with the price of 802.11b chips in some markets, most new equipment uses the 802.11g standard by default.
Unfortunately, running a Super-G network does nothing for you unless your whole network is upgraded, because current technology steps the entire network down to the speed of the slowest device. Connect an 802.11b device to your Super-G network, and the entire network will operate at no more than 11 Mbps.
If you are in a place without WiFi hotspot access, you still can connect wire-free using a wireless PC card modem. Different wireless providers use different technologies. You can connect to these services using an Audiovox PC 5220 ( www.audiovox.com), a Kyocera KPC650 Passport 1xEVDO ( http://global.kyocera.com), or a Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 PC Card modem ( www.sierrawireless.com). The Sierra Wireless AirCard 775 works anywhere you can connect to a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication), GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), or EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Environment) mobile phone network and operates in any one of four bands used throughout North America, Asia, and Europe. For domestic dual-broadband cellular wireless connectivity, expect to pay about $80 a month, plus the cost of the PC card modem.
One of the advantages to WiFi connectivity is the availability of VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephony. Plug a headset into your notebook (or your Bluetooth wireless headset to your Bluetooth-enabled notebook), connect to a service such as SightSpeed (www.sightspeed.com), and you can place telephone calls, conduct videoconferences (if all participants have web cams on their computers), and send audio or audio-video voice mail to e-mail addresses using your computer—even if the person you’re calling is not a customer of the same service.
As you can see, wireless accessibility is increasing exponentially. Concerned about accessibility to low-income residents and businesses, some municipalities have announced plans to develop citywide hotspots—for example, Minneapolis; Philadelphia (covering 135 square miles); San Francisco; and Rio Rancho, New Mexico (covering 103 square miles). Smaller cities, such as Grand Haven, Michigan, and Chaska, Minnesota, already have done so. In addition, an initiative called Education First will roll out wireless coverage to create a huge, seamless, coast-to-coast hotspot connecting almost 80 million students at nearly 7,000 colleges and universities throughout the country.
Incumbent carriers with a vested economic interest in the status quo have typically opposed these efforts. Late last year, Pennsylvania enacted a law permitting incumbent carriers to block cities from creating and charging for municipal WiFi networks. In 2003 incumbent carriers were able to defeat a referendum in suburban Chicago that would have created a tri-city broadband authority for deploying municipal broadband across several communities.
As accessibility increases exponentially, so does the speed of WiFi connections. MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) technology offers dramatically improved throughput and range by eliminating the bandwidth step-down phenomenon. Once the 802.11n standard is adopted (the target date is 2006), as much as six times the current bandwidth will be made available, which is better than half the speed of a wired Gigabit Ethernet connection. The field has been narrowed from 32 proposals to two, and one of the criteria for 802.11n is to provide at least 100 Mbps throughput. Because manufacturers offering pre-802.11n devices have yet to incorporate all of the proposed technologies (and most observers agree it’s highly unlikely that any of them will be compatible with the final 802.11n standard), I recommend sticking with 802.11g or Super-G technology unless you really need more speed now.
Several hotel chains are implementing WiFi access at certain locations, in lobbies, or in every room. If you stay at a WiFi-enabled hotel, access may be free or charged to your room, so be sure to check the policy in advance. (You also may find yourself in a hotel providing wired broadband access, but that’s a whole other story.) Based on my travel patterns, I have two hotspot operator accounts that together (at $21.95/month and $29.95/month) give me WiFi access just about anywhere I need it. Choose your operator(s) based on your own travel and usage patterns.
A number of pocket-sized hotspot locator devices are on the market, for example, Kensington’s WiFi Finder Plus ($30, about the size of a box of mints; www.kensington.com); Smith Micro’s even smaller QuickLink Mobile Wi-Fi Seeker ($30; www.SmithMicro.com); and the somewhat larger Canary Digital Hotspotter ($50, which notes not only 802.11b/g signal strength but also the name of the network [SSID], its broadcast channel, and whether the network is encrypted or open; www.canarywireless.com). I find that, instead of hunting for a signal (a process known as “dowsing”), my time is better spent in looking up the available access points on one of the many web services available for the purpose. You can subscribe to a hotspot operator and simply check its website for a list of WAPs, or use a free service such as JiWire ( www.jiwire.com) or Dowza ( www.dowza.com). The eWeek website maintains a useful list of these services at www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1611879,00.asp, as do other sites.
According to Dowza, there are 89 hotspots within a mile of my apartment in San Francisco, including UPS stores; FedEx Kinko’s facilities; Starbucks and Tully’s coffee houses (one on almost every corner); McDonald’s; San Francisco Giants stadium (free); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (free); Sony Metreon cineplex/entertainment center (free); an Apple store (free); Borders bookstores; and a number of hotels, bars, restaurants, and cafés. What’s in your neighborhood?
Spy vs. Spy
Never engage in wireless computing without protecting your computer with up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a software firewall. In addition, you need to be on the lookout for “rogue access points” and “evil twins.”
Rogue access points infiltrate not just information you enter to a fake site but the entire network to which your specific computer is connected. They are a major security threat. Evil twins set up an unauthorized base station in or near a legitimate public access point (at a coffee house, for example) and, using a hotspotter, jam the legitimate site’s radio access waves. While you innocently surf the web, the evil twin redirects you to web pages the hackers created that happen to look like the ones you visit on a daily basis. The fake site will ask you to enter or reenter your credentials—anything from user name and password to the credit card number you used to sign up originally—and the rest is history/tragedy/larceny. In both scenarios, a software firewall would help protect you against open shared networks and other vulnerabilities.
Another security-breach scenario involves unencrypted communications or data. To avoid this risk, never conduct confidential attorney-client or work product communications using a public WAP without strong authentication and encryption using at least a 128-bit key.
Products are available to defend against evil twin and rogue access point attacks. AirDefense, Inc. ( www.airdefense.net) offers AirDefense Personal (for the mobile user) and AirDefense Enterprise (for the organization). The personal version monitors for malicious or accidental wireless activities and/or misconfigurations that may cause security exposures or policy violations. It also integrates automatically with Enterprise so that all users are protected; in the event threats are discovered, Air-Defense Personal notifies the user and sends logs to AirDefense Enterprise for central reporting and notification. This monitoring enforces the organization’s policies and provides complete protection for the mobile worker, regardless of location. A free download of an unsupported version, AirDefense Personal Lite 2.0, is available at the website.
No longer being tethered to one location by wired connections is a reality for many lawyers, who are becoming accustomed to taking work wherever they go. While that may be useful to our clients and colleagues, I am not sure that bodes well for the quality of our lives. Unless we make the conscious decision to put work aside, it’s all too easy to unplug while remaining “wired.”
J. Anthony Vittal is general counsel of Credit.Com, Inc., and Identity Theft 911, LLC, in San Francisco, California. He speaks and writes frequently on legal technology topics and can be reached at email@example.com.