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As someone who writes on the Internet all day for a living, you’d think I’d just suck it up and spring for the wireless. Hell, you’d think my employer would suck it up and spring for the wireless. But you would be underestimating my laziness, cheapness, and hubris—-not to mention the whole bankruptcy thing.
I used to be like you. I had my own ten-character password consisting of numbers, letters, and symbols. I could stream entire episodes of Lost without interruption. I paid for the Internet. But a few months ago, one of my house-mates moved out and, in a bizarre act of vindication—-long story—-took our shared wireless router with her. My housemates and I are still “thinking about getting wireless.” In the meantime, I’ve been living on the edge, searching for rogue, unprotected wireless connections that lurk just within my windows.
* Survey the landscape. Boot up your laptop. (If you don’t have a laptop, buy a laptop and boot it up). Take a look at your neighbor’s Internet connection names that pop up in your wireless menu. Begin speculating as to which neighbor chose the name “fuzznuggets.” Take note of the names that aren’t password-protected, and prepare to both cherish and resent them, depending on their signal strength. “Linksys,” baby, if you’re reading this, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.
* Maneuver. Make sure your laptop is good and charged, and then stalk through every floor and room of your house, holding the computer open and checking signal strength every couple of steps. Check out the front and back yards, too—-you might be putting in some overtime on the stoop this summer. Take care to scope out the wireless scene near walls and windows, but don’t discount the idea that there may be some pockets of signal strength in the interior. If you find a good spot and then lose the connection, moving or rotating the machine a couple inches can sometimes work wonders.
* Rearrange your furniture to fit the hot spots. In my living arrangement, the desk is pushed all the way to the back of the house for a reason. Our other workspace (okay, my bed) is pushed all the way to the front. Downstairs, you’ll often find a stray living-room chair cozied up next to the trash near the back door of the kitchen—-it may not be the loveliest space in the house, but it’s the sweetest spot we’ve got.
* Prepare to brew some conspiracy theories. I am firm in my belief that the nearly-transluscent bedroom curtain that hangs between my laptop and the open window causes airspace interference, and must be tied back for optimal connection speeds. My boyfriend, who finds this preposterous, believes that the couple squatting in the abandoned row-house next door lack electricity, but still shell out the cash for their own wireless signal. Alas, it is password-protected.
* Don’t try to watch videos. It’s not worth it.
* Don’t panic. A couple months ago, there were a few days where we thought our main source of poached Internet would be lost to us forever. This particular access-point is kind of like the neighborhood bicycle of Internet connections—-we can get it in the front of the house, in the back of the house, on the first floor and on the third. The connection didn’t suddenly decide to require a password to access it—-it just disappeared. For days. It eventually came back, but there was an upside to it leaving us unconnected for a time—-we were forced to find another unprotected connection that we’ve been hooking up with ever since.
* Look on the bright side. On days when the rogue Internet connections just aren’t coming your way, take it as an opportunity to leave your work—-and useless online procrastination—-in the office. Also, take a step back and realize that you’ve begun bestowing your neighbors’ Internet connections with pet names. (“Here, neener neener!”) Sometimes, it’s good to take a break.
* Know the risks. The FCC defers to local law-enforcement on this one. On the local level, unauthorized use of another’s wireless network is usually only prosecuted when a crime is committed—-if you use the network to download illegal pornography, say, or to send out spam.
* Never tell your neighbors that you do this.
* Give back to the community. When you get your own Internet connection, you can always leave it unprotected in an act of solidarity. For a more secure option, you can also give a donation to Open Park, a local non-profit committed to providing free public Internet in hotspots around the Washington, D.C. area. Some open wireless networks are meant to be that way—-find one near you.
Photo by altemark.