Consumers, ever-conscious of the cost of roaming and the limitations of capped data plans, are embracing alternative means of access to the internet from their multiple devices. As a result, mobile network operators (MNOs) may be the worst affected financially.
The appearance, adoption and growth of community wireless-mesh networks is particularly interesting. A wireless-mesh network is essentially a network composed of interconnected wireless routers, or nodes, that propagate traffic between users and also broadcast broadband service from nodes that are wired to the Internet.
Community wireless-mesh networks, estimated to be in the thousands worldwide, owe their existence to relatively recent advances in wireless technology. The New York Times reports that, “perhaps the largest and oldest wireless mesh network is the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network, in Greece, which was started in 2002 by people frustrated by the slow rollout of broadband in the city.” That network now has more than 2,500 users and offers speeds in some areas in excess of 100 Mbps.
Users of these community networks only have to pay for a rooftop antenna and router. Monthly subscription fees are no longer an issue. Wikipedia defines the coverage area of the radio nodes working as a single network sometimes being called a ‘mesh cloud.’ These mesh networks are reliable and offer redundancy. When one node can no longer operate, the rest of the nodes can still communicate with each other, directly or through one or more intermediate nodes.
But network operators are fighting back with their own strategy utilizing personal hotspots provided by their customers to other customers. BT and Orange, for example, offer their home broadband users the ability to access other customers’ broadband Wi-Fi routers using their own username and password, but only if they allow access to their own home systems.
BT’s Fon boasts over five million members that have agreed to safely share some of their unused broadband connection. The BT blurb says that, “as a member of the Fon community, you agree to share a little bit of your Wi-Fi at home, and get free roaming at Fon Spots worldwide in return.”
That sticky strategy allows BT to compete head on with mobile operators offering ‘connected anywhere’ services but at a fee or as part of an existing data package.
Yet despite assurances that Fon and mesh networks are secure the notion that your home router is made available to people you do not know may raise concerns with customers. What guarantees are there that hackers cannot access other shared devices on a home network? Who provides those guarantees?
If surveillance organizations like the NSA are able to hack into routers, who says other, more malicious people or organizations can’t? If that’s hard to swallow then you will not want to read about the NSA’a Catalog of Exploits.
Perhaps the answer can be found in the reasonably new phenomenon - cloud-based routers. New products like Skydog have a hardware component in the form of a router but it’s the software side that makes things really interesting. The dashboard, unlike the firmware access panels of most routers, is actually a cloud-based service layer that provides simple, easy-to-understand controls for various network settings.
The makers claim that it shows the user exactly how much bandwidth is being used by what device, meters access by device or group, so more bandwidth can be allocated to a living room TV for video streaming, or limit the access of guests to prevent them running up your monthly traffic totals.
Parental controls at device level, filtering of content, network diagnostics, real-time monitoring including alarms if anyone attempts to join the network are all features that may help.
Now that we all aware we have virtually no privacy or security of our own personal data, many of us will want to thwart efforts by others to breach or personal space. We may not be able to stop the NSA, but we could at least try and stop those with far greater malicious intent.