No RJ-11 For You

by Scot Hacker

An old friend called in a panic the other day. The modem on her G3 lime iMac had crapped out, and she needed to get online that evening. We verified that she could still get a dial tone on the line. Had her reboot. No dice. "Still no broadband?," I asked. "Maybe someday. Haven't gotten around to it."

Started troubleshooting. "Click the blue apple icon in the top left of your screen," I said. "I only have a rainbow apple." Uh-oh. OS9 user on dial-up. How do people live? Time had caught up with her. Fortunately she had a bit of cash. Told her to order DSL, and meanwhile, I'd pick up a new iMac to get her online by evening. A new Mac is a very expensive modem -- even as a stopgap -- but the time was ripe.

An hour later, showed up at her place to set up the unit and started plugging in cables. You know what happens next -- no RJ-11 on the back of the Mac. And then I remembered reading the news five months ago. "Uhhh... Ummm... I may have to make another trip to the Apple store to, um, pick up a modem." Watching her excitement about the new Mac turn to puzzlement and then anger was not pretty.

But what looked like a brewing embarrassment soon turned golden, as we booted up and the registration app looked for a connection. She hadn't asked for Wi-Fi, but she got it -- no less than five Wi-Fi networks in the immediate vicinity, one of them belonging to a friendly neighbor, who happily shared its password.

So not only did she not need a modem after all, she didn't need DSL either. Wi-Fi is flowing through our neighborhoods like water from drinking fountains, like the air we breathe (password-protected air, but air nonetheless). Question is, was she (or was I) incredibly lucky, or is this sort of situation typical? And the bigger question: Why in the world did the Apple store rep not offer to sell me a modem? They certainly do a good job of pitching other accessories.

I'm sure plenty of people went through similar scenarios when Apple disappeared the floppy drive a few centuries ago.


2006-06-05 02:44:06
My neighbor asked me one day about wireless networks, and I happily ended up sharing it. Now 3 different neighbors are all using my connection, and I'm happy to share. For the casual users they are, they have no impact on it, so why not? I guess the biggest thing here is for people to just ask.. I'm sure many others would be happy to share with people, especially if they aren't power users.
2006-06-05 02:54:19
You have to be careful here. You may be breaking your agreement with your cable/dsl company. Many specifically indicate you cannot share the connection outside your home or they reserve the right to terminate. I don't know the legal issues to know if they can put in this type of condition, but I do remember seeing it.
2006-06-05 03:00:56
I live in Milano, italy and in most part of the city there are plenty of access points, half of them not secured. On the way from where i live to my office I tracked something like 450 different APs...
2006-06-05 03:21:19
I think very few Mac users still use dialup, so it's not surprise they didn't try to sell you a modem.

And it's no surprise that you can find so many Wifi nodes in your neighborhood. Here in Japan, where apartment buildings (very close to eachother) are the rule, you can usually get 2-4 connections. A couple years ago, very few had password protection. But now, nearly all of them do. The problem I have with my home AirPort connection is interference from other WiFi networks. So I periodically have to use a different channel.

2006-06-05 03:45:11
I'm sure she found the move to OS X a bit of a shock.
Does she like OS X?
2006-06-05 06:51:47
OS 9 . . . ugh. Was it really only four years ago that I switched to OS X? In answer to your question, at the moment I can see three Wifi networks (one is mine) and at times I have seen as many as five. one or two were not password protected.
Scot Hacker
2006-06-05 08:50:29
Re: "Does she like OS X?" She likes the dock, and thinks the system is pretty. She likes FrontRow and the remote control and the built-in camera. She doesn't think in terms of "Which OS is this?" She just knows her new computer is a lot faster and prettier and has a lot of fun features she likes.
2006-06-05 08:55:29
I can't believe you didn't just buy a USB modem.

Moving someone from OS 9 on a G3 to OS X on an Intel iMac because a modem broke... just how much software will she now need to buy, since there's no Classic anymore?

My cynical radar is beeping like mad.

Scot Hacker
2006-06-05 09:12:07
Jason - The broken modem was just the catalyst for a long overdue upgrade. Buying a USB modem for the existing Mac and leaving her on dialup would be a pathetic band-aid, dooming her to more years of working with an antique computer, antique software, and slow connections. I'd seriously question any consultant who didn't recommend a total computer replacement to such a user.

And no, she didn't need to buy any replacement software to go with the upgrade. Apple provides everything the average user needs bundled with the OS.

Scot Hacker
2006-06-05 09:32:17
To amend that last comment: If she had not had the budget for an upgrade, I would have suggested an external modem for the G3. But she did, so it made sense. And she was able to pass the G3 on to her 5-year-old, so it wasn't wasted.
Dan Knight
2006-06-05 09:39:37
When I moved into my new home, it was several days before Comcast could install cable. Fortunately I found 3 wireless networks - 1 of which was unprotected - and was able to work until Comcast got me up and running with cable.

Now there are 5 wireless networks here, and both of mine are protected.

2006-06-05 11:09:05
You have to be very careful using other's WI-FI connection. While it may be open, it can also illegal to do so w/o the owner's permission. In the State of Florida it is a 3rd degree felony, and I believe this is true in New York State as well.

As for sharing your connection, you need to be careful here as well. If they are illegally transferring music/movies over your connection, you may be the one held liable in a civil suit.

-- Shawn.

Scot Hacker
2006-06-05 11:54:06
Fortunately we did have permission in this case, though there's a real absurdity to the law when you can bathe someone else in Wi-Fi signal and then be able to arrest them for using it. It's like playing a radio in your car and going balistic if someone else hears it.

But you're absolutely right about being liable for what others do on your network.

2006-06-05 12:57:17
I can see no less then 5 networks from my living room. Three of them being wide open. Mine of course is locked down. Not that I don't mind sharing band width, but I have very little trust in others and the last place I want them in on my network. I wouldn't be caught dead on a free or open wifi spot with out some sort of firewall or VPN connection. Of course I'm kind of paranoid.
2006-06-07 18:23:30
Why didn't they try to sell you a modem?

Either they didn't think anyone needs them or they think it's remarkably silly to drop a tiny little item from a portable computer.

The Silicon Valleyites need to travel outside the land of ubiquitous WiFi and realize there's a lot of wide open spaces out there. I just got rid of the damn dongle for networking, and now I need a modem dongle?

Getting rid of the floppy drive was different. They took up a LOT of space inside a laptop and were not particularly useful. Modems are not large and you can always find a phone line, even when there's no WiFi or wired networking around.

It's remarkably stupid.

Travis Butler
2006-06-12 15:16:49
Sorry, but I have to disagree on the Florida law: ability to access != permission to access. Does failing to lock down a water faucet on the side of your house give anyone passing by the freedom to use it? From a common sense standpoint, I doubt many people would mind someone taking a quick drink or washing their hands, but would object strongly if a neighbor started using it to water their lawn every day! The Florida law may be overly strict (I have no idea whether they allow common sense exceptions analogous to what I describe above), but the principle is still very sound: if you set up a resource, you get to control how it's used. Making the access method wireless doesn't change the fundamental issue; after all, does having a cordless phone give someone else with a phone on the same channel the right to use your phone line to make calls?

I think it's cool if people want to make their network open and give explicit permission to use it, but using someone else's connection without permission is pretty dodgy. I don't think most people would mind occasional low-bandwidth borrowing like e-mail checks, especially if it's an 'emergency' use like when your own connection goes down; but tying up half their pipe downloading the newest Lost episode is rude at best, and leeching off someone else's router without permission to avoid paying for your own connection is sleazy and despicable.

Scot Hacker
2006-06-12 23:13:17
Travis - The water faucet analogy makes sense if you change it a bit -- If I leave my faucet on with a hose attached and that hose is pouring into your yard, then it makes sense. WiFi signal is being broadcast OUT to others. They don't have to come into your personal space to use it.

The cordless phone analogy is also flawed, since cordless phone channels are closed unless forcibly opened. An unprotected WiFi broadcast is the opposite. If someone leaves an open network, the law should interpret that as intention to share, just as if I drive by you with my car radio playing, that should be interpreted as me giving you permission to listen to my radio.