Wi-Fi: Sharing, Piggybacking and the legal implications

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Lately, there has been a lot of discussion on Wi-Fi access sharing. This is not a new topic but it has probably found a new life with FON building a business model around people sharing their Wi-Fi access and FON getting major funding from both Skype and Google. I probably have to thank Martin Varsavsky for all the press and blog coverage it is generating and the material I can use in my research.Lock

Since I am still in the middle of my Wi-Fi survey (you should take it if you haven’t done so already) that focuses on these issues of sharing, usability and legal implications, I won’t comment on the topic now but just provide some pointers and “interesting” quotes. I am also preparing a case study on FON, big municipal Wi-Fi initiatives like San Francisco TechConnect and the likes.
It is amazing what people will say to defend one or the other position of this topic. Especially the analogies!

From the New York Times story titled Hey Neighbor, Stop Piggybacking on My Wireless (Mar 5th 2006)

For a while, the wireless Internet connection Christine and Randy Brodeur installed last year seemed perfect. They were able to sit in their sunny Los Angeles backyard working on their laptop computers.

But they soon began noticing that their high-speed Internet access had become as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway.

“I didn’t know whether to blame it on the Santa Ana winds or what,” recalled Mrs. Brodeur, the chief executive of Socket Media, a marketing and public relations agency.

The “what” turned out to be neighbors who had tapped into their system.

(…)

But they soon began noticing that their high-speed Internet access had become as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway.

“I didn’t know whether to blame it on the Santa Ana winds or what,” recalled Mrs. Brodeur, the chief executive of Socket Media, a marketing and public relations agency.

The “what” turned out to be neighbors who had tapped into their system.

(…)

Many home network owners admit that they are oblivious to piggybackers.

Some, like Marla Edwards, who think they have locked intruders out of their networks, learn otherwise. Ms. Edwards, a junior at Baruch College in New York, said her husband recently discovered that their home network was not secure after a visiting friend with a laptop easily hopped on.

“There’s no gauge, no measuring device that says 48 people are using your access,” Ms. Edwards said.

(…)

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Wi-Fi Survey – How do you use Wi-Fi (wireless Internet) technology?

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OSU Wi-Fi Survey: How do you use wireless Internet

As part of the research project for my master, I am conducting an online survey on how people understand and use Wi-Fi technologies.

The goal of the survey is to help improve the design of Wi-Fi by collecting various user experiences.

Whether you have used it only once or use it everyday, every experience you had with Wi-Fi is valuable to this research and I will appreciate if you would take the time to answer my online survey.

The survey is 6-12 min depending on your experience with Wi-Fi and do not require any technical expertise to be answered.

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Click here to take the Wi-Fi survey
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Thanks!

Callback Hacks #1: Mobile Phone

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Now that you don’t have to wonder how does callback work?, I can explain some of the interesting designs that comes with this system. By designs, I am refering to so-calls “hacks” or modification made to the original system to support a particular type of users or a new functionality. As callback was an competing alternative to the traditional phone service, it is usually not well received by the national phone operators in most of the countries where it is the most widely used.

So, following a related post by Julian Bleecker (Mobile Phone Usage Idiom — No. 2) and a Times article, Phone revolution makes Africa upwardly mobile , I felt it would be timely to describe one such hack used for mobile phones in some part of Africa.

As I described earlier, the call to start the process of callback (also know as trigger call) usually cost nothing to the customer. So, in 2001, by owning a mobile phone in some part of Africa could make you in some ways a small phone operator. Some people would sign up to the service as agents (getting a commission on all calls made by the customers they signed up). Their customers would come to them when they wanted to make a call and these agents would prepaid their accounts. Customers would then be able to use the agent’s phone to make calls to their relatives. Each of the customers would have a separate account in regard to the callback operator but they will all use the same “source” number, the mobile phone number of their agents. To prevent fraud, all the accounts are to be protected by a password so that a client cannnot use somebody else account to make calls.

This means that a same phone (usually a mobile one) could be used to make tens or hundreds of calls in one day. The advantage of the mobile phone was that the agent could travel with it and go see his customers rather than having to get them to come to a phone shop, especially in rural areas. In 2001, cell mobile phone penetration was still small and it meant 2 things:

  1. People could make a living by working as callback phone agents, owning one or more phones
  2. International calls to landline and mobile phones in most African countries would generally be priced the same

So, the callback system, initially designed to help make cheaper calls by increasing competition in countries with a monopolistic incumbent, became a way for hundreds of people to share one single phone (or a couple). Instead of linking accounts to the actual phone, customers’ accounts were linked to the number required to trigger the call.

Before Skype and VoIP, there was callback

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Before Voice over IP, there was callback

A recent post by Julian Bleecker on how people will devise complicated systems to find a way to communicate reminded me of the time I worked in a callback company.

In areas where owning a cell phone is not routine — for economic reasons, predominantly — it is not uncommon for a stranger to ask another stranger to borrow their handset to make a call. This happened to Francois on a trip somewhere and he, being a nice guy, agreed and handed over his phone. Only he thought this stranger was going to just go ahead and make a call. Instead the stranger dismantled Francois’ phone — removed the back, spilled the battery out and popped out the SIM card and then popped his own SIM card in there, reassembled the phone and made a bunch of calls in rapid succession, hanging up on each one after the first ring or two. (Mobile Phone Usage Idiom — No. 1)

While I worked there, I experienced a lot of so called hacks both to prevent callback to operate and to fight these restrictions. I had to designed some of these hacks to keep the service operating in some countries. Let’s first explain how callback works.
Callback is based on the following principle: instead on making one call, make 3 calls with the help of a distant machine. On the downside, calling somebody can be seen as a hassle but on the plus side, you can make calls for much more cheaper (depending on where you are located).

How does callback works (the original system)

  1. You contact a callback company
  2. They create a account for you with the following information
    1. the number you need to call, which is uniquely assigned to you
    2. the number where you want to make the call from
  3. You call the number assigned to you
  4. You let it ring (generally once is enough)
  5. You hang up before anybody picks up
  6. The company (which recognized you based on the number you called) calls you back
  7. You answer the call and get a prompt to dial your destination number
  8. The company puts you “in relation” with this number
  9. Once you hang up, the company will have billed you for 2 calls: once for the call from the company to you and once for the call from the company to your destination number

An example of how it works

Person A lives in Angola and wants to call Person B who lives in France. This kind of call are usually really expensive (more than $1/min). Person A decides to signup with a callback company (like United World Telecom the one I worked for). Person A account main information would look something like that

  • Callback Number: +1 305 555 1234
  • Source Number : +244 123 456 789

Now Person A wants to call Person B whose number is + 33 9 12 34 56 78. Person A will need to do the following:

  1. Person A calls the number +1 305 555 1234, let it rings once and hang up (cost = none)
  2. The company receives the call on a group of lines dedicated to receiving these call ( like 10-15 lines dedicated and matched to hundreds or thousands of phone numbers). The phone number +1 305 555 1234 can be thought of as being a “virtual” phone number, there is actually no physical line dedicated to this particular number. Along with the call, the telecom operators along the way are passing along the phone number in a format that can be captured by the callback company.
  3. Once the phone number is captured, the callback company will look up in its database for the phone number called (here 305 555 1234)
  4. The callback number is associated to the corresponding source number
  5. The callback system picks up a line, calls the number +244 123 456 789 and wait for the person to pick up
  6. The callback system picks up another line, calls the number +33 9 12 34 56 78 and link the two lines on its system so that Person A and Person B can talk to each other.
  7. Once the call is finished, Person A can end the distant part of the call with a key combination and redial another number or hang up
  8. On the callback company side, the two calls are added up and charged to Person A

Cost (as of 2002)

Option A: Direct Call from Angola to France: > $1

Option B : Same Call using callback

  • Trigger call: Free
  • Call from US to Angola: approx. $0.40/ min
  • Call from US to France : approx $0.05/min
  • Total: $0.45

Next, I will describe some of the features (speed dials,…) and how they can sometimes serve other really important functions that the ones they were originally designed for.