Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

The Evolution of Large Accidental Wireless Networks

Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

The Evolution of Large Accidental Wireless Networks

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This document describes the discovery of a LAWN (Large Accidental Wireless Network), an artifact or byproduct that emerges from the unintended but collective effect of the behavior of a group of independently-acting individuals. A LAWN is a high-speed wireless computing network that emerges if there is a high enough density of open and unsecured wireless access points in some area. It can extend throughout a neighborhood and is open for access or exploitation by any resident or casual passerby who chooses to connect to it. As such, it enables anyone with fairly inexpensive and rudimentary computing equipment the ability to connect to the Internet at high speed and no cost. With these characteristics, a LAWN might be used by a municipal government as the infrastructure to create a "wireless city", a movement that is becoming quite popular in metropolitan governments in the United States.

Data were collected about access points in three areas of a large American West Coast city to determine if the small isolated access points that are known to exist in individual homes are evolving into large "wireless clouds" that can encompass entire neighborhoods. An analysis shows that such LAWNs are evolving, and that there is a relationship between the density of each LAWN and the socio-economic level of the neighborhood, demonstrating the existence of another form of "digital divide".

INTRODUCTION

This document describes a research project that shows, in the area of residential high-speed wireless computer networks, the uncoordinated and unintentional actions of individuals can lead to group behavior that results in unexpected outcomes. The unexpected outcome described herein is labeled a "large accidental wireless network", or LAWN. It will be shown that, if a LAWN exists in a neighborhood, it can provide broadband Internet access to all residents within that neighborhood, as well as casual passersby, regardless of their individual demographic characteristics.

A LAWN is created when enough individuals in a geographic area purchase high speed wireless computer networking devices (generally 802.11* devices, hereafter called "Wi-Fi access point nodes", or APs, referring collectively to 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and other related wireless network protocols) and make them, either accidentally or intentionally, available for connection to outsiders. This is a common occurrence when those installing the Wi-Fi APs are either not sophisticated enough to implement the built-in security systems of the devices they have purchased (Arbaugh 2002; Vichr and Malhotra 2003), or intentionally leave their APs open to outside connections. In many cases, users may not even change the default SSID ("Service Set Identifier, or the "casual network name") of their AP. Anyone who wishes to connect to an AP must know its SSID, but this is not at all difficult to find out; in fact, common network sniffing software and popular PC operating systems do this automatically. There are also network performance ramifications of these types of networks; those performance issues are related to instability inherent in the network (Aditya, Glenn, and Srinivasan 2005). These performance issues may be the outcome of the construction of such a wireless network that has been implemented without any thought to standards, protocols, quality of service, or network stability (Agarwal, Norman, and Gupta 2004). Regardless, such open networks are likely to become more popular in the future as legal and economic constraints are overcome (Benkler 2002). Note, however, that connecting to an unprotected network may be illegal, depending on the laws in place at the location of the wireless network node (Kagan, 2007). This research project did not attempt to assess the legality of connecting to a LAWN; the only focus of the research project was to assess the ability of a LAWN to provide the infrastructure of a neighborhood-wide wireless network. …

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