January 30, 2007 4:00 AM PST
Spanish start-up Whisher promises free Wi-Fi for all
Whisher, based in Barcelona and backed by Switzerland's leading phone company, Swisscom, and the venture firm Benchmark Capital, is one of several emerging start-ups that is taking broadband to the people by providing access through existing residential Wi-Fi networks.
Starting Tuesday, users can download the beta version of the company's software from its Web site. The service and software are free. Users aren't required to offer up their own Wi-Fi access to use other Wi-Fi networks around the world.
Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed radio frequency technology for accessing the Internet, is a relatively cheap and ubiquitous technology. Not only is it embedded in almost every laptop shipped today, but mobile devices such as cell phones are also coming equipped with the technology.
While companies such as EarthLink are building new networks to blanket cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans with Wi-Fi signals, Whisher and Fon Wireless, another Spanish start-up, are banking on the willingness of large numbers of people to share their excess broadband with others. And just as Skype, another European start-up, challenged the established telephone companies by providing free Internet calling, Whisher also hopes to shake up the establishment by offering an easy way to share and access Wi-Fi for free.
"Either you believe in the user-generated revolution or you believe ISPs rule the world," said Ferran Moreno, co-founder and CEO of Whisher. "I believe ISPs don't rule the world and how the Internet works. If I am paying for my broadband, I have the right to share it with other people, as long as I am not reselling the service. And we are not reselling access."
Of course, there is one small snag in Moreno's utopian view of free Wi-Fi for everyone. In the U.S., it's illegal.
"Sharing broadband access outside of your dwelling is a violation of our subscriber agreement," said Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable operator in the U.S. "We've taken steps as a company to inform our customers that passive or active theft of our services is illegal, and people who violate these agreements can be prosecuted on a criminal and civil basis."
Time Warner and other broadband providers such as Verizon Communications said it's rare that they have to take action against subscribers sharing their broadband service outside their home. When they become aware of such a situation, the broadband providers typically contact subscribers and remind them of the companies' policies. In 90 percent of the cases, users stop sharing their broadband, Huff said.
But representatives from each company said that if illegal sharing persists, the company takes action, which could result in users getting their service cut off or even facing prosecution.
"We don't actively police this," said Bobbi Henson, a spokeswoman for Verizon Communications. "But if we become aware of a situation, we will do something, especially if we see a degradation of service. We have a duty to our customers to keep an optimum level of service."
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