Security Watch

Wireless for the Common Man

Free Internet could prove profitable.

Last week I was traveling by car and Internet access was, shall we say, irregular. When I could get high-speed access I paid a lot. Ten bucks a day extra isn't much, but I paid three to five times more just to stay in a hotel that provided it. I've also tried getting the cheap hotel room and using dial-up. Slow I can handle; but have you ever tried to send a 3MB zip file over dial-up? It's just not going to happen.

I can't subscribe to multiple wireless access networks; they just aren't everywhere I want to be. And it would be hypocritical to sidle up to some businesses and mooch Internet access just because its wireless network isn't secured. Besides, if the companies are so behind that they don't lock out freeloaders from their wireless network, they're probably so infected with worms and viruses that using them for Internet access would be like using dial-up at the $29.95-per-night hotel.

OK, maybe I'm being selfish here. Just because I want to travel and have primo Internet access everywhere is certainly no reason for anyone to provide it.

But consider this: Internet access is becoming a critical resource. Take education as one example. Schools are increasingly making the Internet available to students and teachers, providing the kind of education necessary to compete in the global economy. Of course, I could spend more pages describing what Internet access can do for struggling businesses, all kinds of professionals and not-for-profits. The Internet has become our world library, our evening news, our international art museum, our music repository, our extended family.

But not everyone in America has equal access to this resource. In many rural and residential areas of our cities; for the struggling small business; everywhere poor people live and work; or where the population is not large enough for commercial enterprise to invest in, there's no fast Internet access. There's no plot to keep the Internet for the privileged — it's just that access costs money. Even a dial-up line costs about $20 a month in the U.S., and much more elsewhere. These entry-level prices aren't barriers for many of us, but they can take a significant bite out of a budget for others. Even if it was cheaper, though, dial-up just isn't fast enough anymore to provide benefits that can grow the next generation.

Now, think about what could be if free Internet access was available to everyone.

Before you chastise me for being a dreamer, listen up: Some cities are already headed in that direction.

  • Cleveland, Ohio, has added some 4,000 wireless transmitters in its University Circle, Midtown and Lakefront districts. Access is free to anyone close enough to get the signals.
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is considering building a wireless mesh that spans the city. If completed, Internet access will be available over almost all 135 city miles. It's considering providing the service for free, and could end up actually saving money over alternatives. The cost of the mesh, about $10 million, would be cheaper than building a new library.

This utopian Internet ideal has a huge challenge in the area of wireless security. If free access is provided, remote access policy should require hardened client computers and a few "good citizen" rules. These rules wouldn't be implemented to keep people off the Internet, or to censor freedom of speech, but rather to keep them, and the entire Web, a little safer for all.

Free security products and education will also be needed, but vendors should consider that an investment. If Sharon uses a free product to access the Internet or protect her computer, isn't she more likely to stick with that company for future purchases? And whose product will get recommended when Sharon's the decision-maker for the next Google or Microsoft?

Security can also be profitable. For every dollar invested in making sure a new Internet connection is a secure connection, 10 or 100 times that can be saved over the cost of cleanup after a major worm or virus attack and the reduced costs for general network protection.

After all, we spend millions on free vaccinations and other public health programs to prevent disease; let's start doing it now for the Internet.

Rah rah, Philly and Cleveland! I salute you! Anyone else want to join the party?

About the Author

Roberta Bragg, MCSE: Security, CISSP, Security+, and Microsoft MVP is a Redmond contributing editor and the owner of Have Computer Will Travel Inc., an independent firm specializing in information security and operating systems. She's series editor for Osborne/McGraw-Hill's Hardening series, books that instruct you on how to secure your networks before you are hacked, and author of the first book in the series, Hardening Windows Systems.

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