Friday, June 14, 2013

Goodbye, Free WiFi

I have a confession to make: I am a WiFi leech. I’m not proud of it, but as they say, admission is the first step to recovery.

It’s a compulsion of sorts. Whenever I find myself with some spare moments outdoors, I whip out my phone and check if there’s some open WiFi signal that I can latch on to. If I do get one, I load up Twitter or Google News. Nasty habit, that.

There was a time some two years ago when it was great to be a leech. DSL was getting affordable and people were installing wireless routers almost indiscriminately. Convenience, not security, was top of mind, so most just left their WiFi open with any passwords. That was the case for homes and business establishments.

So I’d walk around, in the neighborhood or around the malls, building up a personal map of WiFi signals. There’s actually a term for that, too: “wardriving.”

At some point, the business establishments began to wise up. Maybe too many people were hanging around the vicinity with open laptops. I wasn’t the only WiFi leech, after all. Restaurants and coffee shops were particular susceptible. They started putting passwords on their WiFi connections.

That only made the game that much more interesting. Once set, few establishments bothered to change their passwords. So I’d buy a coffee, ask the waiter for the secret, and save it to my database for later use. Ha!

But really, passwords were only the beginning of the end. The death knell for free wifi came with the explosion of cheap Android phones and tablets. Suddenly everyone had a WiFi-capable gizmo, and everyone was connecting! (I also have Android, so....)

Thing is: there’s a limit to how many active connections a wireless access point can have at any one time. Even a decent wireless router, under the default settings, only has room for around 250.

So now if you can find an open WiFi signal, even one that actually encourages you to use it as part of their add-on service (as in a mall), you can end up waiting forever for a connection. Even if you do manage to latch onto one, there’s no guarantee it has an active Internet connection. Being a WiFi leech just isn’t fun anymore!

It’s just as well that things have developed this way. Looking at it now, being a WiFi leech isn’t healthy, what with the compulsions involved. Because I’ve been thwarted so many times, either through passwords or congestion, I’ve found myself checking on the Internet less and less. That leaves me more time to enjoy the scenery around me.