The Invisible Politics of the Public Airwaves

Last month, as part of Breakout! – a collaborative team project that is part of the Architecture League’s ongoing Toward the Sentient City exhibit – a small group including NYCwireless co-founder Anthony Townsend gathered at The Triangle – a slice of pavement equipped with tables, chairs and umbrellas parked in between The Diner and the 14th Street Apple Store to experiment with iPhone applications for mobile work.

Of course, no experiment in mobile work would be complete without “jail breaking” an iPhone in order to enable tethering, the feature that allows one to use their AT&T phone service to connect to the Internet via a laptop computer.

When the cellular network nestled in the “mobile office kit” – a design intervention from the Breakout! project — proved to be too slow for downloading large files, Townsend switched to the Apple Store’s open Wi-Fi network.  That’s when things got interesting.  The store was blocking the file required to install tethering. (For more details, see the Breakout! session transcript).

About a week later, in a meeting with a business improvement district, I learned that Starbucks Coffee wanted to prevent free, public Wi-Fi within reach of their cafes.  It is common for Wi-Fi users to sit inside Starbucks while using a free network across the street.  While not a surprise, this added another interesting example of hidden politics over the reach of unlicensed wireless spectrum.

Like the battle over open vs. encrypted SSIDs referenced in an earlier post, there is a similar fight – albeit a nearly invisible one – over the spaces that the signals leak into and the kinds of information that can be accessed on them.

Yet, the particular geographies of Wi-Fi networks dictate that they can overlap with one another, existing simultaneously in the same space.  So, Wi-Fi is not a technology of exclusivity but rather a public commons that permeates both private and public spaces, typically without much interference.  As such, why should any individual corporation be able to dictate what signals do and do not penetrate within their walls?

In fact, the FCC ruled in Massport v. Continental that landowners are not allowed to control unlicensed spectrum.  Only the FCC itself may regulate spectrum.  Yes, this has not stopped from using their political influence to prevent nearby organizations from broadcasting free signals into their space.

Furthermore, while the few remaining providers of open networks may have a right, or even a responsibility, to control the data that passes through them in some way (a practice referred to as traffic shaping or bandwidth portioning, which optimizes networks for efficiency and speed), it seems unethical to block specific sites or specific files without full disclosure and transparency.

While it is possible to argue that such limitations are intended to prevent abuse, in some cases they are merely enforcing corporate policy.   Thus, there is a need for better technology to enable Wi-Fi sharing while controlling for abuse.  Free sharing rests on the tension between these two needs.

After all, how are users to navigate through the messy politics of the public airwaves?  Networks that shout “Don’t download that file here,” or “You should pay me there.”

While these limits are technically possible, they also push us farther down a slippery slope away from neutral networks and towards walled gardens of content.  At the same time, attempts to block content have also inspired new tools such as the TOR project that are designed to circumvent censorship.

With the increased dominance of mobile phones – which still, for the most part, rely on carrier control over proprietary platforms — as the primary portals for accessing a variety of news and information, these are critical concerns about the Internet’s future.

These issues have long been the subject of intense discussion among community wireless networks around the world.  For this reason, community groups have instituted measures such as the Pico Peering Agreement,which ensures free transit, open communication, no warranty and terms of use.

In the last decade, Wi-Fi has become widely available yet the underlying politics of the networks remain obscure.  Let us keep these invisible political geographies in mind as we embark on new territories of contention where unlicensed spectrum is concerned.

5 thoughts on “The Invisible Politics of the Public Airwaves”

  1. Hi Laura,
    it’s always fun to connect to something other than att/t-mobile at Starbucks.
    Years ago (2002) I could connect to bway.net (when they were still on B’way&Grand) at the Starbucks across the street.
    Later I was able to connect to Verizon Payphone-WiFi at a Starbucks at 52nd St and B’way. The payphone was right in front of Starbucks.
    Today I revisited a Starbucks on Steinway St. in Queens that has a FON_Starbucks! Some guy with a FON spot right next to it or above it.
    Free for me because I have a FON spot of my own (FON_Juniper).
    FON actually encouraged this kind of thing. Search for Starbucks at

    http://blog.fon.com/en/

    Klaus Ernst

  2. Hi Laura,
    it’s always fun to connect to something other than att/t-mobile at Starbucks.
    Years ago (2002) I could connect to bway.net (when they were still on B’way&Grand) at the Starbucks across the street.
    Later I was able to connect to Verizon Payphone-WiFi at a Starbucks at 52nd St and B’way. The payphone was right in front of Starbucks.
    Today I revisited a Starbucks on Steinway St. in Queens that has a FON_Starbucks! Some guy with a FON spot right next to it or above it.
    Free for me because I have a FON spot of my own (FON_Juniper).
    FON actually encouraged this kind of thing. Search for Starbucks at

    http://blog.fon.com/en/

    Klaus Ernst

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