A wireless router is just a box with antennas that allows you to surf the Internet on your laptop anywhere within about a 200-foot radius (about two-thirds of a football field). In a populated spot, like an apartment complex, quite a few neighbors fall within that 200 foot range; and if you're like a lot of people, you never bothered to password protect access to your router and the valuable Internet service it broadcasts.
So, what do you get when you mix an unsecured wireless router with a densely populated neighborhood of Internet users--an ample supply of digital "piggybackers" ready to access the Internet through your router free of charge. Is piggybacking theft? Not necessarily. Indeed, some people leave their routers unprotected intentionally--"sticking it to the man" by unleashing free Internet service for the masses. Problems arise, however, when too many neighbors piggyback at once, clogging up bandwidth and reducing your Internet connection speed to a trickle. An article in the New York Times shows that a bit of benign wireless free-loading can quickly turn into a miniature tragedy of the digital commons.
As you read the article, think about how you would classify Internet service through a wireless router. Is the service a private good, a natural monopoly, a public good, or a common resource? What's the difference between a password-protected router and an unsecured one?
1. According to the article, what happened to Christine and Randy Brodeur before they wised up and secured their wireless network?
2. Would requiring wireless network users to secure their networks with a password prevent the piggybacking problems the Brodeurs experienced?
3. Several cities, including Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco, are considering installation of blanket, citywide wireless networks. Rather than using routers to set up local networks (with ranges of 200 feet), Internet users would subscribe to the internet service provider or providers that facilitate the citywide network.
Would a blanket, citywide network eliminate piggybacking problems in a large city?
How would you classify the Internet service provided by the companies that contract with the city to provide the blanket wireless network?
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