Ever watched "On the Waterfront"? That's the one with Marlon Brando playing a has-been prize-fighter. The plot revolved around a union of stevedores on strike in the 1950s. But go down to a 21st century port, and you won't see anybody toting around a longshoreman's hook anymore. In fact, you won't see many stevedores at all. What happened? Containers. In 1955 a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina named Malcolm McLean had a very bright idea. Instead of employing a lot of stevedores to pack and unpack boxes and crates of all different sizes and shapes, it occurred to him that you could just throw everything into a few big metal boxes. Make all those boxes the same size and durable enough that you can load them straight from a truck to a ship and back to a truck again with the simple expedient of a crane. The result: a revolution in global trade [source: World Shipping].
Why are we talking about containers when we're supposed to be talking about WiFi? Are we off-topic? Only a little. Because containers and WiFi share a very important historical factor — Coopetition. That's a fancy business neologism referring to a practice whereby rival companies cooperate for mutual benefit. When Malcolm McLean had his brilliant insight, he realized it would work best if he didn't patent the idea, but made it available to everyone. If everybody could agree on an international standard for the size of containers, trade would increase. His rivals would benefit, but so would he. Stevedore jobs would be filed under collateral damage.
The story of WiFi goes back to 1985 when a forward-thinking engineer at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promoted the idea of releasing certain bands of the wireless spectrum to communications entrepreneurs. These were bands unused by radio or TV. Vendors soon began developing proprietary technology to take advantage of the newly available bandwidth, but it took them a while to realize they needed to work together. There wasn't much point in the whole thing if one type of equipment couldn't communicate with another type.
In 1988 a group of tech companies formed a committee to create an industry standard. It took nearly 10 years of wrangling to get all the interested parties to agree on the new standard, and in 1997 the first one was published. Two years later the standard was refined and simplified, and companies began producing devices that were compatible with the technology. But it still needed a name. Branding consultants were consulted. "FlankSpeed" was rejected. So was "DragonFly." "WiFi" sounded like hi-fi, which in turn reminded customers of how any CD could work in any player regardless of who manufactured it. "WiFi" won the naming contest [source: The Economist].
Two decades later, ethernet cables have, like stevedores before them, seen their populations dwindle. But with the decline of cables and the rise of WiFi has come a vertiginous increase in internet use. There are so many things we can now do with our wireless devices that our usage habitually outstrips our data plans.
So where can we go to poach free wireless access?
Back in the spring of 2014, Parks Canada announced it planned to install WiFi services in a number of national parks across the country.
From coast to coast nature lovers chimed in to decry the desecration of the Canadian wilderness. Canada was the first country in the worldto establish a national park service, and now it was going to be one of the first countries to contaminate those undeveloped lakes and mountain ranges with the incessant presence of social media, emails, texts and, shudder, memes. Could visitors not even spend a few days in the pristine back country without posting clifftop selfies? Was humanity so addicted to its devices? What about those who wanted to spend time in the woods precisely because they needed to distance themselves from the omnipresence of, well, everybody else?
Parks Canada clarified that it wasn't about to put hotspots on mountaintops or remote lake-shores. The backcountry would remain WiFi-free. Free WiFi on the other hand, would be installed in a few visitor centers as an experiment. It was part of a strategy to lure more millennials to the great outdoors [source: Parks Canada].
The hullabaloo died down. Parks Canada quietly installed the hotspots, and no more has been said about the matter. It's too early to say whether the youth are playing into the strategy or not.
In the U.S., national parks remain off limits to WiFi, but every other kind of park seems to have fully succumbed. You could send a video feed of yourself walking through Central Park in NYC live, if that were in any way interesting. And from California to South Carolina, from Texas to Ohio, state parks have gone hog-wild for free wireless connectivity.
Your data plan is maxed out, and if your provider hasn't already pulled the plug, its slowed your connection to prehistoric dial-up speeds or threatened to bill you extortionate penalties for exceeding your limit. Get yourself to the Baltics.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union's hairline precipitously receded, the sudden glare of modernity woke up the Baltics. They shook themselves, took a look around and rather than retreating, collectively decided to gun their engines into the 21st century.
To get to the Baltics, take a left at Poland and head north by northwest. Your first stop will be Lithuania, which, by some measures, has been judged to have the fastest public WiFi in the world [source: Eadicicco].
Next stop, Latvia, where a telecommunications company called Lattlecom set up more than 2,000 free WiFi hotspots across the country back in 2013. A pair of 15-second ads split up an hour of usage before you carry on with your Twitter feed. This should come as no surprise because Latvians have famously jumped into the digital revolution with unmatched gusto. According to polls, one in every five Latvians would willingly give up dessert or alcohol for access to free WiFi [source: Bhatia].
Farther north, Estonians are also massive fans of connectivity, and they're not afraid to trumpet the ubiquity of free WiFi throughout the nation. No uncontaminated backcountry for them! Remote beaches and forests are online. In Estonia, internet access is considered a human right. After all, this is the home of Hotmail and Skype [source: Visitestonia.com].
Remember "Speed"? Keanu Reeves before he was Neo, and Sandra Bullock before anybody knew who Sandra Bullock was. "'Die Hard' on a bus" was the pitch line that sold the high-concept thriller. Remember "Die Hard"? Never mind. The bus is the relevant part. A psychopath (Dennis Hopper, typecast) wires a bus to explode if it dips under a certain speed. He's grumpy about his pension or something. The motive doesn't matter (clearly it didn't matter to the director).
The question is, have recent developments made "Speed" outdated? What recent developments? WiFi baby, WiFi. That's right, free WiFi on city buses. It's happening. Actually, it's happened. As of December 2014, the Golden Gate Transit fleet of 180 buses has free WiFi throughout its service area from San Francisco to Santa Rosa to Western Contra Costa County.
Of course, "Speed" took place in L.A., but they're working on it too. So is NYC, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was set to begin rolling out more than 2,000 new buses featuring free WiFi in mid-2016 [source: Whitten]. They're even going to have USB charging ports!
It's a thing. Kansas City (Missouri), Minneapolis, Atlanta, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are among the cities getting on board the WiFi express.
So, "Speed"? Is the movie WiFi compatible? Probably yes. If you're going to use a plot that ludicrous, surely a production team with such a towering disinterest in plausibility could concoct a digital pirate with the hacking skills to remotely shut down a mobile WiFi hotspot and ruin everybody's day.
Sticking with the transit theme, let's take a look at trains. If buses can do it, surely rail can, too. After all, when it comes to connectivity, train tracks were the internet of the 19th century. And yes! Across Europe and North America, train systems do offer free WiFi. In January 2016, in India, Google began implementing one of the world's largest public WiFi projects. The plan is to provide free WiFi in more than 400 railway stations across the country [source: Balachandran].
Trains cross the countryside, but they also go underground. Back to The Big Apple where, in addition to its buses, the MTA is set to increase the number of underground stations that have WiFi from 140 to 277 by the end of 2016 [source: Smith].
Meanwhile, the oldest subway system in the world, the London Underground, aka The Tube, has WiFi everywhere. Paris, too. Toronto's got it at some stations. Same with Montreal. But if you're looking for a truly high-tech connected subway system, head for Seoul where they've got it nailed with WiFi being the least of their innovations for improved transit [source: Kim].
And what effect would all this have on the plot of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three"? Remember Walter Matthau? Remember? Long before his "Grumpy Old Men" phase, he was a grumpy, middle-aged, New York City transit cop forced to handle a pack of evil subway high-jackers.
OK, subterranean WiFi is cool, but what about subaqueous connectivity? If you're in the depths eye-to-eye with a colossal squid through the portal, it's kind of a drag if you can't post that pic to Instagram. But remember that WiFi is essentially a radio signal, and unfortunately, radio signals fail underwater. Fear not! A sub-aquatic internet firm (yes, there is such a thing) named Subnero is busy working out the details of an alternative plan somewhere in Singapore.
It works as follows: Subnero installs nodes underwater at intervals of several miles (kilometers). The node network sends and receives signals from surface buoys that, in turn, communicate with satellites or cell services. Your sub can then send out sound pulses to the internet via the nodes and buoys.
There are just a few little glitches to work out like, for instance, the fact that sound travels through water 100,000 times more slowly than radio waves travel through air. Not exactly broadband speeds! But Subnero carries on undeterred, convinced that the solutions are just around the corner. In the near future they're hoping undersea WiFi will help pull off all kinds of tricks, such as piloting aquatic drones or augmenting reality for divers [source: Kingsley].
Say you don't feel like you can justify shelling out $2.8 million for a Koenigsegg One:1. Sure it's blisteringly quick and has an outrageous power-to-weight ratio (one to one, as advertised by the name), but it came out in 2015 and it already seems a bit dated. After all, the 2016 Koenigsegg Regera comes with a built-in WiFi hotspot, it's got an even better power-to-weight ratio, it's a plug-in hybrid and it only costs $2.3 million — a steal if it means free WiFi for the life of the car [source: Oagana]. Is it actually free? Not sure, but it should be.
Fine, fine, if megacars are off the table, WiFi doesn't have to be. Audi's lineup features 4G hotspots that can handle as many as eight different devices.
And if Euro luxury isn't your thing, it turns out GM's gone wireless from the Corvette to the Cadillac. Most Fords are WiFi-enabled now, too. Chrysler's hotspots broadcast to a 150-foot (46-meter) radius, which is where the free part comes in for you WiFi squatters [source: Martell]. Next time you're at the beach, search the parking lot for a Chrysler and see if the owner has locked access to the system. If not, you just might be able to tweet from your towel.
Mount Fuji, that instantly recognizable volcanic silhouette, has come to be symbolic of Japan itself. Thousands of paintings and photos depict it, and poems memorialize it. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year. And now those climbers can post the experience to Facebook as they go. Yes, Mount Fuji has free WiFi from top to bottom. And for all the available and obvious jokes about social media, the truth is that WiFi-enabling the mountain makes it safer for climbers. They can monitor the weather as they go and make emergency calls even when out of range of cell service.
If you're heading to Fuji for the free WiFi, keep in mind that the mountain is open to hikers only from July 1 through early September. Also, you get free wireless access for just 72 hours after you connect, which should give you plenty of time to get up and back down.
Amazingly, at 12,389 feet (3,776 meters) Fuji's WiFi isn't even the highest in the world. Since 2010, Mount Everest has sported hotspots as high as 17,000 feet (5,181 meters) [source: Griffin]. Does that make it the highest WiFi in the world? It depends on how you define "world."
Remember Chris Hadfield? He was that Canadian astronaut who commanded the International Space Station back in 2013. By the time he came back down to Earth, some were calling him one of the most renowned astronauts since Neil Armstrong. How did that happen? Free WiFi. TV made Armstrong famous. The internet made Hadfield a star.
Calling it the "ultimate wireless connection," NASA installed WiFi on the ISS in 2010 [source: NASA]. Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer was the first to live tweet from space, but it was Hadfield, three years later, who used the access to best effect. A Twitter exchange with William Shatner was the trigger, and within a few months, Hadfield had 800,000 followers. His videos from zero-gravity have been viewed more than 20 million times, and his cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" was a worldwide phenomenon [source: Mirani].
Gaining access to this particular free WiFi connection, however, is no joke. In Hadfield's case it required getting a degree in engineering, then becoming a fighter pilot, then a test pilot and then finally jumping through endless hoops to qualify as a NASA astronaut. Becoming an astronaut is great, but it's no guarantee that you'll actually end up in space. That requires luck, fluent Russian and a talent for being the person with just the right qualifications at the right time [source: chrishadfield.ca].
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are all competing to save the world by running it. It's no coincidence then that they've all announced their intentions to provide free WiFi to the entire planet. There are 4.8 billion people who still can't get online. That's a lot of potential customers.
Facebook's strategy is to launch a gazillion solar-powered drones over the skies of remote rural locations in Asia and Africa where people have no access to the web. Super-precise lasers will beam the signal from drone to drone, creating a kind of aerial internet. They've already built a prototype drone plane out of carbon fiber, and despite having the wingspan of a 737, it weighs less than half the weight of a Prius. It'll shoot signals down to cell towers from an altitude between 60,000 and 90,000 feet (18,000 and 27,000 meters), high above commercial air traffic. Speeds will allegedly be 10 gigabits per second — that's even faster than fiber-optic cables [source: Vanian].
And if Google has its way, there'll be a lot more beaming going on. The working solution is, again, to go up. But the search engine behemoth isn't fooling around with the mesosphere. Google's plan is shoot 180 satellites into low orbit so they can spread the connectivity revolution. They're also talking about using drones and hot air balloons to augment the network [source: Zolfagharifard].
Not to be outdone, or rather, to outdo everybody else, as usual, Musk is also planning to shoot enough satellites into space to provide global WiFi access. But whereas Facebook and Google speak of free access, the Tesla Motors CEO would like to turn a profit. And proving, once again, that he's the most ambitious man on or off planet, the profits he's banking on will be earmarked for the construction of a city on Mars [source: Metzger]. It almost goes without saying.
All those plans for planet-wide WiFi are cool in a sci-fi way, but there's actually a much simpler, cheaper and maybe even better alternative available. Remember that WiFi broadcasts on a limited band of the electromagnetic spectrum. That's because the spectrum is carefully apportioned by a given country's regulatory bodies. Because they came first, radio and TV have proprietary use of the good channels. But think of all those local UHF channels that aren't being used. UHF, or ultra-high frequency, signals are in the spectrum between 400 and 700 megahertz. If providers could broadcast WiFi at those frequencies, the signal could go for miles, right through walls, trees, trucks or whatever was in its way.
Some clever researchers at Rice University came up with a way to transmit data that doesn't even need a specific channel. Their system automatically detects which UHF channels aren't being used at a given moment and jumps on it, switching midstream from channel to channel to avoid interference if necessary. Best of all, you don't need any new fancy equipment to receive the signal, just your old TV, the one that uses an antenna [source: Mack].
Meanwhile, the inquiring minds over at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, are cogitating over a Borg-like project that makes the dreams of Elon Musk sound positively antique. After all, this is the chief organization behind the invention of the internet.
One of their latest big ideas is something they call a "cortical modem." One day they hope to be able to create a $10 device the size of two stacked nickels that could be implanted into your head as a direct neural interface. Never mind retinal displays, this thing could provide a display right inside your visual cortex. But forget all the other implications (hyper-augmented reality, for one); with this gizmo in your brain, you could talk to somebody IN YOUR MIND. That's right, DARPA wants to create electronic telepathy. They're even talking about telekinesis, which could work well with an internet of things [source: Rothman]. The Force will be with us all! This is WiFi in its wildest, ultimate form. Will it be free? In the future, everything is.
Could light-based WiFi replace our current radio-based networking standard? HowStuffWorks investigates the potential for superfast WiFi via light.
Author's Note: 10 Places to Find WiFi (So You Don't Eat up Your Data Plan)
I'm old enough to have grown to adulthood before the internet took off. WiFi still seems like magic to me. I remember sitting at a computer in one of my university's IT centers and being astounded to receive real-time messages from a friend who was spending a year in Russia. DARPA's cortical modem sounds preposterously space-agey now, but in a few decades it could be the new normal. On the other hand, there's no predicting what technologies will take off. Who would have guessed that texting would be so popular?
More Great Links
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