Free Hotspots Need Free Security
By Mike Masnick, Thu Jun 17 20:00:00 GMT 2004

Wi-Fi security is getting more attention these days, but most of the solutions are focused on the enterprise or paid-hotspot market. Now one group is trying to tackle the problem for free hotspots as well.

With all the press coverage concerning Wi-Fi security issues, some users are becoming more careful about how they connect to any old access point. Most efforts to deal with this, however, are aimed at securing enterprise Wi-Fi or fee-based hotspots. Companies like Boingo, for instance, offer VPN access if you're on one of their hotspots. However, its become quite obvious recently that the trend in Wi-Fi hotspots is free access, and many of the open Wi-Fi offerings aren't set up to let outside users log in while still remaining secure.

Linksys recently took a step in that direction with their partnership with Wireless Security Corporation to easily enable 802.11X security on a standard Linksys WAP54G wireless router. Still, that security offering is a service provided by WSC, and costs a few dollars a month -- something many free hotspot providers may not be all that enthusiastic about. If the users of their network aren't making an issue about security, they may not feel it's necessary to pay the extra fees to just set it up.

It was only a matter of time, though, until someone started working on a better solution. Wi-Fi Networking News details the plan of Radiuz to handle 802.11X authentication for any free hotspot provider that signs up -- and they're doing this for free. It's something of a "grand experiment" designed as a "cross between Wi-Fi and Friendster." The idea is to get many free wireless network offerings to sign up, and any one with a Radiuz account will be able to log in securely at any of those locations. At some point, they may end up adding more fee-based value added features -- but the authentication part will always remain free.

The solution isn't perfect. Hotspot providers still need to be convinced to set it up, and it does create a hurdle for many casual users who won't know to have signed up for a Radiuz account before trying to connect. If end users aren't clamoring for security, then many hotspot providers won't see the value, which could create a catch-22 situation. If no hotspot providers will sign up, then no end-users will find it worthwhile to get an account and vice versa. Either way, it's clear that many people are thinking about the security issues related to Wi-Fi going beyond just corporate and paid hotspot usage. While it's a bit early to suggest that all the pieces have fallen together, they are certainly getting closer. It's likely that more solutions of this nature will start to appear over the next few months. The more seamless they can be for both hotspot operators and casual users, the more likely they are to catch on. It certainly would be nice to have free hotspots where your data isn't "free" for the taking as well.