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Spreading the signal: John Guzzo.

No Wires Attached
By Rick Marshall
Photos by Alicia Solsman

 

The Capital Region has been slow to ride the wireless Internet wave, but hot spot access is finally on the way

As Anthony Hersko, Tom Morgan and I drive around Albany, a web of wires draped over the center console of Hersko’s Chevrolet Cavalier and not one, but two sets of computers, antennae and GPS units sounding off each time a wireless Internet signal is detected, it’s hard not to feel like characters in a low-budget science-fiction film—or possibly a video game, set entirely among the avenues of the Capital Region.

And when we hit Lark Street, it sounds like the game has a new high score.

“Depending on your point of view, this is either the good or the bad of going wireless,” says Morgan over the dual computers’ sudden chirping.

>From the moment we turn onto Lark Street from Madison Avenue, Morgan’s laptop computer and Hersko’s PDA begin beeping and buzzing like R2-D2 on amphetamines. By the time we leave Lark Street, Morgan’s computer—which has the more powerful antenna of the two—has tallied more than 100 “hot spots,” all broadcasting wireless Internet signals to the world at large from homes and offices.

For more than two years now, Morgan, Hersko and other local technophiles have kept tabs on the proliferation of wireless Internet around the Capital Region via drives like this, often referred to as “wardriving.” The process, which gets its name from the 1983 film Wargames, in which a young hacker programs his computer to search the phone lines for other computers, basically involves driving around with a computer capable of detecting wireless Internet signals (commonly referred to as “wi-fi”) and mapping out their locations. Morgan, the administrator for AlbanyWifi (www.albanywifi.com), an online forum dedicated to providing information about wireless Internet in the Capital Region, organizes the information gleaned from these wardriving expeditions into detailed maps of the region’s wireless hot spots, which he then makes available to the public along with other information about access points around the region.

“I’m just a data junkie,” laughs Morgan, who insists that his site is intended as a resource for all things wi-fi-related, and not a how-to manual for signal hijacking. “It’s not like I’m trying to make any money off of this—I just want to educate people about what’s out there.”

According to Morgan, the majority of wardrivers—and a simple search around the Internet shows that Morgan, Hersko and the rest of AlbanyWifi are far from alone in their hobby—never actually connect to any of the access points they discover, they simply record the signal’s location. Surfing the Internet on someone else’s signal without their permission, he explains, is considered theft of service in most states. While some governments have taken steps to prevent these sort of charges from being levied against individuals who accidentally connect (early versions of the Windows operating system automatically connect computers to the first available signal), some state courts are still puzzling over how to regulate crowded Internet airwaves.

Access granted: (l-r) Tom Morgan and Anthony Hersko

If the wireless trend continues as it has in recent years, it doesn’t look like those airwaves will be getting any roomier in the near future. Increasing affordability of wireless Internet routers (which take the signal provided by a cable and broadcast it locally) and receivers (whether external or, as is often the case with newer computers, already built into the computer) has made the use of wireless Internet in homes and offices around the nation fairly common. With the number of laptop and handheld-computer purchases beginning to outpace those of the desktop variety, more people are turning to a wireless networks each year in order to surf the Internet from their kitchen table or extend their working environment beyond the company walls.

“You can open up your laptop now and have a business meeting outside of the office,” explains Scott Almas, an associate with Lemery Greisler LLC, a local law firm that counts technology law among its specialties. Almas spearheaded the firm’s decision to sponsor a free Internet hot spot in downtown Albany’s Omni Plaza, across from the firm’s offices.

“This is not something that’s reserved for the technology elite,” says Almas. “Anyone can walk into a Comp USA and buy a PDA with wireless access.”

The Omni Plaza isn’t the only free, wireless hot spot to pop up around the Capital Region recently, either, as AlbanyWiFi lists nearly a dozen free sites in and around Albany—usually centered around major avenues of commerce like Pearl Street. Downtown Albany’s Bentley’s Burgers and Nicole’s Bistro have also begun offering free, wireless Internet service to the public in the last year, while uptown one can even get a Bombers burrito while surfing the information superhighway. Despite little advertising for this amenity—Bentley’s owner Josh Kiernan says he’s still waiting for signage—many of the businesses offering wireless Internet say that the regular crowd of laptop luncheoners has steadily increased since the hot spot was set up. While some cite the low cost of maintaining a hot spot as the primary reason for providing such an amenity (just a few new, regular customers can offset businesses’ monthly costs for the Internet connection), others see it as a necessary part of competition for an increasingly tech-savvy pool of customers.

“Why not?” shrugs Jesse Jette, an employee of Stagecoach Coffee in downtown Albany, when asked why the little coffee shop decided to start offering free wireless Internet last year. “Just look across the street,” she says, nodding towards the window where the neighboring Starbucks—also a wireless Internet provider—can be seen just across State Street. “We’re competing with them for customers, so why not, right?”

And while the two very different coffee shops offer a similar service, their methods of providing that service illustrate some of the different ways in which businesses—and municipalities, in some cases—have chosen to shape the wireless environment.

Essentially, wireless hot spots tend to come in three varieties: In the first, service is provided free of charge and for an unlimited amount of time. Businesses or municipalities footing the bill for the service typically are given advertising space on a page that automatically appears when users connect to the Internet.

Access to wireless hot spots also can be provided on a pay-per-use basis, in much the same fashion as prepaid phone cards or parking meters (a system Albany residents have become all-too-familiar with in recent years). Anyone who wants to connect pays on an hourly, daily or other time-based schedule. Finally, the style of connection offered by businesses like Starbucks requires a subscription or some form of prepaid account with the company providing the Internet service (in the case of Starbucks, a T-Mobile account is required).

However, Morgan suggests a fourth option—one that, he says, is nice to consider but unlikely to develop—in which home users leave access points like the ones the pair encounter during each wardrive open to the public, eventually creating a community of open access points. While steps could be taken to protect users’ home computers from outside tampering, Internet service providers like Roadrunner tend to frown on such benevolent arrangements, says Morgan.

While many argue that free, wireless Internet access is the wave of the future, the most widely used form of wireless service is still the pay-per-use model, an arrangement that’s especially prevalent in the most common wireless venues, such as airports (Albany International’s pay-per-use wireless Internet service is one example) and hotels.

That’s not to say that some cities haven’t found success with the free model, however. Just last year, Spokane, Wash., became the first U.S. city to blanket its residents with free wireless access.

So how does the Capital Region’s “Tech Valley” rank in terms of wire-free living? Not as high as you might expect for a place touted as the next Silicon Valley.

According to a 2004 “Most Unwired Cities” survey conducted by Intel, one of the world’s leading technology companies, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy region ranked 71st among the top 100 cities providing opportunities for wireless Internet access. In addition to being beat out intrastate by Buffalo-Niagara Falls (60) and the New York City-Suffolk region (24), the Capital Region fell behind cities like Stockton, Calif., (66) and Wichita, Kan., (67) in its reluctance to cut the cords. Schenectady’s Union College was the only local university to break the top 100 of the “Most Unwired Campuses” survey (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was conspicuously absent from the final tally), while Albany International Airport didn’t even make the top 25 “Most Unwired Airports.”

This apparent contradiction—between a region calling itself “Tech Valley” and a conspicuous lack of technological amenities common to other areas—hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

“We’re asking people to take what they have in Silicon Valley and Austin—all of the technology they’ve grown comfortable with there—and we want them to come to Albany?” asks Almas.

“In order to make the Tech Valley moniker a reality, it’s time we brought technology into the area in a real and palpable form. . . . The label needs to be more than a bumper-sticker slogan,” he says, adding that he hopes the access points along Pearl Street will spark enough interest to get the city involved in sponsoring hot spots, too.

While Almas says the Omni Plaza hot spot will remain free, he predicts that future access points around the Capital Region will shift to a system that provides free service for a few hours, only to charge on a per-use basis after that time limit is reached. Changing to such an arrangement, says Almas, is not so much a profit-based decision as it is an attempt to prevent businesses within range of a hot spot from simply leeching off of the free signal.

In Austin, Texas, a city whose name frequently pops up when discussing the model for the Capital Region’s own Tech Valley aspirations, wireless Internet access has had a strong foothold in city life for many years. In addition to the standard pay-per-use and subscription offerings from local businesses, more than 100 free access points can be found within city limits. The access points were created as part of the Austin Wireless City Project, a volunteer, nonprofit group that helps businesses provide free hot spots through a combination of recycled hardware and companies’ existing Internet accounts.

While local provider Road Runner might balk at such a setup locally—large providers tend to shy away from providing free service in any form—that doesn’t mean there aren’t local companies looking to provide a similar service in the Capital Region.

“If Albany is really going to be a valley of technology, we need to walk the walk around here,” reasons Elizabeth Epstein, spokeswoman for Tech Valley Wireless, creators of the Omni Plaza access point, as well as many of the other free access points sponsored by downtown Albany businesses.

“[Albany] is becoming a good example of how this system can work, though,” continues Epstein, in reference to the joint effort by businesses around Pearl Street and State Street to create a virtual corridor of free, wireless Internet access. “Private businesses are cooperating and making things happen in a way that benefits both the public and themselves.”

But while Tech Valley Wireless and other wireless Internet providers concentrate their efforts in the more urban areas of the Capital Region, another local company is attempting to bring wireless access to the rest of Tech Valley.

“The people moving here for Tech Valley and all, they’re not just moving into downtown Albany,” explains John Guzzo, president of Hudson Valley Wireless. “They’re moving into the suburban and rural areas, too—and when people have high-speed [Internet] access at work, they want it at home, too.”

In fact, says Guzzo, his family-owned Hudson Valley Wireless, which specializes in bringing wireless Internet service to regions where standard cable lines aren’t feasible, may be pulling out of the major urban areas in the future in order to concentrate their service on the outlying areas of the Capital Region and Tech Valley. Although the company doesn’t provide the same hot-spot-style access as its urban peers, relying instead upon stationary, line-of-sight wireless signals sent directly from towers to home receivers, Guzzo is quick to point out that the increasing desire for Internet access even in the most remote areas of the Capital Region illustrates both how far the region has come, technologically speaking, and how much potential there is for improvement.

And while the advertising benefits for companies sponsoring the hot spots are obvious, there’s something to be gained from municipal involvement, too. In Spokane, like many of the other municipalities with a citywide wireless network, police, firefighters, ambulance personnel and other emergency service providers are connected via a wireless signal kept separate from its public counterpart. By linking police vehicles and ambulances into a wireless network, information such as criminal and victim profiles can be made available at the click of a button.

Wireless Internet service has even played a preservationist role in city development in some cases, too, as cities with an abundance of historic buildings have begun turning to wireless access as an alternative to expensive—and potentially destructive—wiring of older structures that simply weren’t made for cables. Here in Albany, where the preservation of historic structures is one of the primary hot-button issues any time there’s talk of new development, such rationale may provide one of the best arguments for snipping the city’s umbilical Internet connection.

Despite the apparent lag-ging behind of Tech Valley’s technological climate, there have been some significant steps taken locally toward a wireless future—just ask the two wardrivers.

“Our first meeting [of AlbanyWiFi] was held here two years or so ago,” says Morgan as we return to the parking lot of Uncommon Grounds, a Western Avenue coffee shop. “They didn’t have any [legal] wireless access around here then, and now we can sit in the coffee shop and surf the Internet.”

“Two years go by, and we’ve got our pick of locations to meet at,” adds Hersko, maneuvering his car into a parking spot.

In just an hour’s drive around Albany and Bethlehem, Morgan’s laptop registered more than 400 access points—with a single pass through a local development tallying 23 signals. Two years ago, says Morgan, they had counted just over 1,500 signals in the entire region, now they log that many in just a few hours.

And one can only hope that the Capital Region’s businesses and local governments take to wireless service with the same intensity as residents, reasons Morgan, whether free or pay-per-use. Echoing somewhat the evaluation of Epstein, Morgan adds that the notion of blanket coverage for Albany, Troy and the rest of the Capital Region is likely to be dependent upon cooperation—not only between businesses, though, but between Internet service providers.

“[Local wireless service companies] all have different visions around here, while in the places that have made a large-scale system work, there’s been more of a group effort,” says Morgan. “But there’s definitely been a lot of progress made—I mean, wireless was just a pay service at Starbucks around here not too long ago.”

“And as long as it’s out there and available,” laughs Hersko, “I’ll have something to keep me occupied.”

As the pair save today’s wardriving data, the process of disassembling the various antennae, GPS units and other hardware that have created a jungle of technology around the car’s console begins. While detaching his laptop’s GPS unit, Morgan turns around in his seat.

“Taking apart all of this stuff took a while when we first started doing this,” he smirks, “but disconnecting all the wires is easy once you get the hang of it.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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