August 18, 2012    /    by

Is That Wireless Network Legal?

Back in late June, I wrote about connectivity options while traveling during my vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. The blog was entitled: Vacation WiFi: What Networks Can We Trust? Now, thanks to some emails from an online friend who wishes to remain anonymous, I can offer Part 2 of this story.

Back in late June, I wrote about connectivity options while traveling during my vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. The blog was entitled: Vacation WiFi: What Networks Can We Trust? Now, thanks to some emails from an online friend who wishes to remain anonymous, I can offer “Part 2” of this story.

To summarize my vacation wireless options, I wrote:

“As I powered up my iPad from our fifth floor condo on 136th Street, more than a half dozen wireless networks popped up. I asked myself: Can I use (or trust) any of these? Are they free? Is it worth the risk, if they are?

The names were intriguing to me, ranging from Netgear58-5G to Oceanside136 to OceanNet Public Internet ST to Wireless Beach Access.”

I guess I should have also contemplated whether the WiFi networks were even legal. Last week, I received this message in an email:

“Mr. Lohrmann – Saw  your article about Vacation WiFi and noticed you mention Oceannet.  You may want to read the following article:

Man uses 35 cable modems to provide WiFi, sued by Comcast

It is a good example of why people should be wary of WiFi services, especially ones that ask for a credit card or PayPal account requiring payment.“

The article was written three years ago. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Unfortunately, it appears that OceanNet kept its service cheap by getting unauthorized access to Comcast's residential service, and the cable giant is not amused—it's suing to recover the ill-gotten gains of the WiFi provider.”

A later email went further: “I thought you might find it interesting given you mentioned them in your article.  I don’t know how much you dug into it, the lawsuit by Comcast was settled for $50,000 fine plus agreement to never use/abuse Comcast cablemodem services again.”

I confirmed that this emailed information is true. While the individual running the service in 2009 was cleared of criminal charges, a consent agreement was reached in 2011 in which $50K damages was paid to Comcast for reselling their service.  

Which brings me back to my vacation in June, 2012. I had an experience with a WiFi service that now goes by the same WiFi name. Is this cuurent service legal or not? I don’t know, but it certainly raises several additional reminders, comments and/or questions for all of us. Here are a few thoughts to ponder:

1)      Reselling your typical residential WiFi service for profit is a violation of the terms of service with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and is also illegal without a license. Even if no dollars change hands, it is not smart to leave your wireless network wide-open without password protection. It will slow down your network and open you up to others risks to your data.

2)      Stealing WiFi signals is illegal.

3)      Connecting your devices to unsecured WiFi has risks as well – even if it is “free.”

4)      WiFi reputation is important. Many of us ask: Can I trust this network?

Going back to my experience in Ocean City, some people may wonder why I should care whether the new OceanNet service was legal or not. Isn’t that a matter for the owner of the service and ISPs? Perhaps the service had legal troubles before but is now “relaunched” legally under the same name. How can your average user figure this stuff out?

This is a complicated question to answer, but typical users on the move often can’t know for sure. You can “google it” to check on WiFi reputation. You can ask a trusted local source (such as the condo owners or local businesses). You can rely on the “big names” like McDonalds, your hotel chain or major ISP provider. But most of us don’t check court records for unknown access points.

5)     We need to care if the service is legal. I ask you: Are you comfortable providing a credit or debit card to access an illegal service? If the service is illegal, I wonder what else is going on behind the scenes. Am I being spied on? Are my credentials or credit card numbers being stolen?  Can I trust this provider?

While this blog may leave you with as many new questions as answers, there are many great articles on how to safely use hot spots, in addition to my original blog. The best advice that I can give is to research your specific options (at your location).

I tried to write a “behind the scenes” piece on this topic, but the simple decisions that I made on vacation could have turned out to be much more complicated – if I had used that WiFi network. As it turns out, I never used that WiFi service for the very reasons being discussed.

Nevertheless, this true story points out that we all need to have a personal plan if we intend to use wireless networks that we know very little about. As my online friend pointed out, it is best to be wary of unknown WiFi options. There are plenty of safe options for frequent travelers, but oftentimes, users try to save $$s and not use their minutes and/or want to try something new.

What’s your plan? Or, do you have a WiFi story to share?