The Air Is Free, and Sometimes So Are the Phone Calls That Borrow It
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 26 — Gary Schaffer looked out his window here last week to discover a reporter standing on his lawn, pirating his wireless Internet access to test a new mobile phone.
The phone, made by Belkin, is one of several new mobile devices that allow users to make free or low-cost phone calls over the Internet. They are designed to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of wireless access points deployed in cafes, parks, businesses and, most important, homes.
The technology’s advocates say that as long as people are paying for high-speed Wi-Fi access in their homes, they should be able to use it as a conduit for inexpensive calls and an alternative to traditional phone service.
But, in a twist that raises some tricky ethical and legal questions, the phones can also be used on the go, piggybacking on whatever access points happen to be open and available, like that of Mr. Schaffer.
A retired business teacher, Mr. Schaffer seemed affably cautious about the idea of having his bandwidth borrowed.
“If you’re a friend, I’d say, let’s give it a try,” he said. “If you’re a stranger, probably not, unless you had to make an emergency call.”
The call made from Mr. Schaffer’s lawn went through but was quickly disconnected, apparently because of a weak signal. Mr. Schaffer did not seem to feel he owed any apology for the spotty coverage, though he did express concern for the person on the other end of the line.
“I know what it’s like to have a call dropped,” he said.
For all its limitations, the technology is starting to emerge commercially, with companies like Vonage, Skype (owned by eBay) and T-Mobile (a unit of Deutsche Telekom) now selling or supporting mobile devices that use Wi-Fi networks.
In some cases, the voice service is free. A Belkin phone that works with the Skype calling service costs about $180; calls to Skype users on computers are free, as are outgoing calls to domestic phone numbers, at least through the end of the year. Incoming calls from phones cost extra. Vonage charges $90 for a phone and $15 a month for 500 minutes of talk time.
One big hurdle is that the Wi-Fi radio frequency spectrum is unlicensed and not maintained by any one company, so call quality can be unreliable. Moving a few yards can require finding a new network to connect to. In other words, when you place free or low-cost calls — especially on a stranger’s network — you sometimes get what you pay for.
“There are a lot of dropped calls,” said Roger Entner, a telecommunications industry analyst with Ovum Research. But he said the new technology had at least one impressive ability: getting people to appreciate their old-fashioned cellular service.
“Everybody who tries a Wi-Fi phone will get down on their knees and thank the wireless phone people for the good job they’ve done on coverage,” he said.
Wi-Fi is also a power-hungry technology that can cause phone batteries to die quickly — in some cases, within an hour or two of talk time.
“When you turn on the Wi-Fi it does bring the battery life down,” said Mike Hendrick, director of product development for T-Mobile. But he said the technology was improving rapidly.
T-Mobile is letting customers in Seattle participate in a test of phones that can switch between its mobile network and Wi-Fi. The company is betting that this flexibility will come in handy if the customer is out of the network’s reach, offering another way to get online and stay connected.
More generally, the technology could threaten the dominance of traditional telecommunications networks by giving people an alternative pipe for their voice and data transmissions.
But some carriers are not convinced that the technology is ready for the market.
“We can totally understand that people want even more ubiquity from cellphones,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. But Wi-Fi devices “aren’t where they need to be,” he said.
Mr. Hendrick of T-Mobile said the new phones were good enough to provide an alternative.
“If you can’t get access because you’re buried in the basement of a metal-encased building, you can go to an open wireless network,” he said. Or it could be useful “if you’re out in the suburbs, in the basement, and you have Wi-Fi in the house.”
But what if you’re just on somebody’s lawn? How do people feel about a passer-by using their bandwidth to place free phone calls?
For his part, Mr. Schaffer said he would mind only if it had an adverse effect on him — which in theory it could, if the voice data caused congestion on his network. There is no clear indication to a network’s owner that a phone call is taking place, so most will not have the chance to object.
Not everyone is so open to walk-by talkers. “I don’t like it,” Kevin Asbra, another San Franciscan, said. “It’s an abuse of the system. I pay my bills. Why should you call for free?”
New types of mobile phones, like this model from Belkin, can locate and tap in to the growing number of wireless access points to the Internet, just as laptops with Wi-Fi do. Once connected, the user can make phone calls as usual, but signal strength can vary.
His wife, Karen Seratti, begged to differ. A Web site usability tester, she says she regularly looks for open access points so she can check e-mail when she is traveling or away from the office.
“I walk around with my Mac all the time looking for access,” she said. “When you have to send an e-mail, you have to send an e-mail.”
Sometimes she must scavenge from within her own house, as when the family’s Internet connection goes down. She offered a neighborly tip: “Walk into the alley — you can find the network called Fido265.”
Finding an open access point might prove challenging in some places, but not in San Francisco, where the spread of Wi-Fi networks has outpaced even that of yoga studios and organic produce shops.
In a walk through the Inner Sunset district, a phone’s display showed that most wireless networks in range were protected, requiring a password for access.
There were, however, enough unsecured ones that it was possible to get online every half a block or so. Because the Wi-Fi phone looks like a standard cellphone, it is much less conspicuous than a laptop on the street. The proliferation of Wi-Fi laptops and, in turn, hunters of free Internet access has already raised questions about whether borrowers of bandwidth are breaking any laws.
“There’s a big debate going on right now,” said Jennifer S. Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Ms. Granick said some people believed that using a connection without permission constituted unauthorized access to computers, which is a crime, while others disagree.
Traditional analogies are hard to come by, she said, adding that she does not believe using Wi-Fi is the same as trespassing, since the signals travel beyond property limits. “People say that you can’t go inside somebody’s house; but I say, you can sit outside and listen to the radio,” Ms. Granick said.
She added that the situation was different when the owner of a wireless network chose to require a password. “If it’s secured, it’s marked as off-limits,” she said.
Alex Milowski, an executive at a technology start-up who was out for a walk last week with his infant son, Max, said that it was fine for Wi-Fi phone users to jump onto an open network. Would he teach Max that swiping bandwidth without permission was O.K.?
“By the time he’s worried about it, access will be free,” Mr. Milowski said.