Opinion: Why would Verizon pretend not to be trapping WiFi pirates?

by Guy Kewney | posted on 20 August 2004

A WiFi Pirate ran foul of a Verizon "filter trap" which barred her from hitching a free ride on a neighbour's broadband link. Well, it's bound to happen - except that in last week's wonderful New York Times story by Lisa Napoli, Verizon denied doing any such thing. Why?

Guy Kewney

It was specially odd, considering that it was Verizon who told Napoli they were dong it in the first place.

The piracy first. Lisa Napoli isn't a thief, even though she claims to be one (her article is no longer freely available - you'd have to pay for it at the standard rate, so we can't share it all with you) because she uses her neighbour's WiFi with his permission

So when she got cut off, and redirected to a Verizon trap saying: "Please enter your 10-digit evening contact telephone number that you provided when ordering your Internet service, or your Login Code. (No spaces or hyphens.)" - she was vexed, and rang Verizon to ask what was going on.

No mystery. No need to speculate about sources and non disclosure arrangements. In essence, their agent coughed straight away: "We've been installing filters that block computers that aren't registered with us from using our service," he said gruffly. "You must be in one of the buildings that got it first."

Napoli wasn't happy. I'm with her, because, unless the world has changed a lot, it's no business of Verizon, or AT&T, or BT or Pipex or anybody in the telephone network, to decide who uses my phone or my PC. If you visit me and say: "Guy, can I check my email?" I'll say: "Yes, of course!" and if you say "I'm not sure about my baby-sitter - can I ring home and check?" I'll say "naturally!" with alacrity. It's my business who I allow to use my phone.

Equally, if someone shows up and says: "I have a PC with my own email software. Do you mind if I plug it into your phone can call the Internet?" I'm sure it's my business to say yes, or no, or "use my Ethernet connection" as I think fit. And my wireless Ethernet comes into this.

OK, so there's an issue with broadband. It's provided on the basis that they give me a nominal 512 kilobits download and 256 kilobits upload per second - but also on the basis that I won't use this. There's the famous "contention ratio" which says that in fact, fifty people are likely to be using the same resources, and I'm only paying for a fiftieth of what it costs to provide them.

And of course, that calculation works because approximately, the world's broadband providers know what a typical user needs. If, suddenly, I start using twice as much bandwidth, that's part of the risk: but if I start using twice as much, because my neighbour is getting a free ride, then the figures get hard.

There are, however, ways around this.

The ISP can say: "We'll offer you a good rate, but we're going to assume that you only need a gigabyte of data every month, or every week. If you want more, you have to pay extra." Capping the download is quite common, and people buy capped feeds.

So, the way I see it, my broadband feed is mine. If the ISP isn't happy with the deal they've sold me, that's one of the commercial risks they took in selling me an uncapped feed. I might double my usage tomorrow, by subscribing to the BBC's sailing feed here then that was understood as one of the options I might take up. If I want to buy my daughter a PC to share on the home network, and she needs to spend all day surfing, that, too, is one of the business risks they took. And if I think that my chances of captivating my attractive neighbour are enhanced by offering a free piggy-back on my internet, that, surely, is my decision, not theirs

Well, Verizon seems to think so, too. Because when Napoli stopped dealing with customer services and rang a senior VP, he backpedalled smartly. The "filters we've been installing" according to customer services, suddenly became a black Labrador dog when the VP was asked:

"Mr. Dunne doubted that there were filters rooting out Wi-Fi rogues; he suggested that perhaps I had simply been routed to a neighbour who used Verizon, and thus to the blocking page. He explained how flaky a technology WiFi can be, given that it rides on the airwaves shared by microwave ovens."

" 'It could be as simple as a big black Lab sitting in front of the router next door, and it's degrading the signal, and bumping you to a neighbour's connection, one who uses Verizon,' Mr. Dunne said."

Well, yes, it could. It could be sunspots, too, or little green men crawling around on the roof top playing with the antenna. But since customer support says it's a filter they're installing, why look for rather less plausible offerings

I think Verizon is trying to sneak its new filters into place without anybody noticing, and knows that it's bad publicity - because it looks like exactly what it is: an attempt to control people in areas where it has no right to control them.

If it has a problem with its contention algorithm, let's see new terms and conditions, and let's see where customers go.

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