Wi-fi access etiquette is matter of debate

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Pretty much anywhere you go, you can access the Internet. Starbucks, dorm rooms, airports--if your computer is equipped for Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, you can get online.

With so much accessibility, it's almost too easy to use a network that you're not authorized to use.

Anyone who lives in a high-density area, such as an apartment building, understands. When I log on to the Web in my building, half a dozen or more wireless networks are always available.

Do I really need to spend $40 a month to pay for broadband service?

In a recent survey by JupiterResearch, 27 percent of Wi-Fi network owners--folks who pay for broadband each month--said it's not OK to use a network without permission.

"They argue that just because it's open, or not password-protected, that doesn't mean you can use it," said Ina Sebastian, the lead analyst on the study. "It's still private."

Meanwhile, 17 percent of Wi-Fi network owners don't mind sharing. In fact, 12 percent say they've even used a neighbor's network. The majority said they weren't sure or that the issue didn't apply to them.

Said Joe Laszlow, a senior broadband analyst with Jupiter: "To use a locked-door analogy, one side says that just because you leave your door unlocked, it's not OK for someone to enter your home. The other side says an unsecured network is more like an invitation; you're leaving the door open and saying, `Please come in.'

"The law about broadband access is similarly ambiguous.

It's unlikely that you will get into any legal trouble if you freeload off a neighbor. To be sure, some arrests have occurred. But most incidents involve someone suspiciously parking their car in front of a neighbor's house or stealing access from a public "hot spot" restricted to patrons.

If you're just trying to get online in your apartment, it's very difficult for anyone--the Internet service provider and neighbor alike--to notice your presence.

But should you do it?

-- Broadband hogging

A network's bandwidth, or capacity to deliver information, is stretched thinner when many users are on the same network.But most Internet activity, such as reading and responding to e-mail, doesn't place a drag on the system.

"That's idle time," said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst on consumer wireless applications for Forrester Research. "So the impact on your neighbor will be nominal."

Downloading a lot of MP3s or video, however, creates a considerable drain and will likely raise your neighbor's suspicion. Plus, it may take longer for you to download the media.

In other words, be courteous about your Internet habits. If you need a lot of bandwidth, spring for your own service.-- Security risks

If you're using an unsecured network, it's possible that your neighbor could view information on your computer.In most cases, only shared files and folders are accessible, Golvin said.

But a malicious hacker could go beyond that, logging onto your machine and gaining access to say, last year's tax return or reading your e-mail.

If that makes you uncomfortable, then pay for your own network and use the wireless security features on your router, such as assigning a password.

Another step: Rename your network. Otherwise, someone could easily mistake your "Linksys" network for theirs and log on.

-- Saving money

Still don't want to pay the full cost for broadband every month?

Some people set up a secure network to share with roommates.

In addition, many Internet service providers offer introductory rates for less than half the normal monthly charge for up to a year. And if you can't afford a monthly broadband fee, you can look up public Wi-Fi "hot spots" at www.wi-fihotspotlist.com.

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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