A Neighborhood on the Internet

In Masaryk Square in central Tel Aviv, anyone can sit down, pull out a laptop and hook up wirelessly to the Internet - gratis.

Ilan Greitzer didn't plan a revolution. He was just frustrated. After having grown accustomed in New York and San Francisco to opening up his laptop wherever and whenever he wanted a link to the Internet, he'd come home to Tel Aviv, where he was compelled to restrict his Internet use to the confines of his apartment on Maneh Street, at the corner of Chen Boulevard.

"I used to sit a lot in cafes with my laptop, and work from there," reminisces Greitzer, 37, who designs interfaces. "But now, the idea of sitting with the computer without being hooked up to the Internet is simply pass� for me. Even if you're sitting and working on something that doesn't require you to be online, there is always some minor little thing that you'll want to do on the Web. It annoyed me to have to suddenly drop everything and have to go up to my apartment to check something or download something from the Internet."

By next week, Greitzer may have reason to relax a bit: He will be able to cruise the Net with his laptop from any point in the vicinity of Tel Aviv's Masaryk Square. Actually, thanks to his initiative, anyone equipped with a computer that has a Wi-Fi wireless network card will be able to link into one of the wireless networks (including that of this reporter) available in the quadrant that stretches from Rabin Square in the north, Maneh Street in the south, Chen Boulevard in the east and Masaryk Square in the west, and surf the Internet at high speed - for free.

Broadband hummus

"It all began when Patisserie (a small cafe in Masaryk Square) was doing renovations," recalls Greitzer. "I was walking past it with my dog, and I saw the designer who was carrying out the renovation, sitting there with a Mac Titanium. Since I often sit there, and I'm also a Mac fan, we started talking. At one point I wanted to show him something on the Internet, and suddenly I realized that the range of the wireless network in my apartment [which as a matter of course Greitzer shares with anyone who happens to be within range - S.S.] didn't reach the cafe. I was disheartened, but I decided that if we set up wireless Internet around the whole block, all of it would be covered, and anyone inside would be able to surf freely."

In order to convert the urban area bounded by the four city streets into Israel's first wireless block, Greitzer has beat the pavement in the past few months, making the rounds of small shops near the square, and coaxing the owners to join the project after explaining what he was talking about. He went from Patisserie to Cafe Masaryk to the Gzuz hair salon to Knafeh, the Arab restaurant, to Meat Bar, proposing that the owners order an Internet link and purchase a wireless router that would offer coverage over a radius of about 100 meters.

He volunteered to install the routers in each computer and arrange the definitions so that hooking up to the new wireless network would be simple and fast. All a user needs is a computer equipped with a wireless network card.

One after another, Greitzer explained to the business owners that just like overseas, cafes and restaurants will increasingly have to offer free wireless Internet service to their customers, as part of the services they provide. "Everyone would ask, `How much is it going to cost me?' but when they heard the prices, it didn't seem so awful to them," says Greitzer. "I also told them that in my opinion, there is no reason to create a system for charging clients for use of the network. Instead, why not leave a little box by the cashier where the folks who want to can drop in a few shekels, or simply charge anyone who sits down with a laptop and hooks up to the Internet two or three shekels."

The business owners seemed to recognize the commercial and public relations potential of setting up the network, and decided to cooperate. "Ilan has been a customer and a friend of mine for nine years," says Gary Unter of Patisserie, "and he told me that I would only have to order fast Internet, and that he would then handle all the rest. So it seemed like a great idea to me. I'm in favor of optimum accessibility to this medium, and since I occasionally have customers who come in with their laptops and write, I decided to add this as part of the service, at a token price, and post a sign outside that I have a wireless network."

Mosi Schochman of Knafeh decided to join the initiative because, he says, "We have a young, modern and very hooked-up client community, and the Internet goes very well with it." Nevertheless, Schochman is slightly worried about online customers occupying tables for hours on end, and is therefore considering making the network available for Internet surfing only during hours in which business is relatively slow, in order to maintain a reasonable turnover of clientele in the restaurant. "Maybe I'll call it Internet Happy Hour; I haven't yet devoted enough thought to it," he says.

On the benches

Of the three questions that trouble Wi-Fi users around the world - loss of too much broadband to incidental surfers, fear of hackers breaking into the computer of the network operator, and definition of the network owner's legal responsibility for damage caused to a computer that was linked to the network (for instance by a virus), or for crimes committed via the connection - Greitzer is concerned only by the issue of legal responsibility.

"I have been sharing my connection to the Internet for a long time, and I assume that once the network is up and running, a few freaks will be using the connection for a while from the benches on the boulevard, and I don't have any problem with that. Whenever you give to the community, you concede something for the benefit of others. So long as it's at a tolerable level, it's fine, but if they take too much from me, it won't pay for me to give."

As for the common concern among people who have wireless networks, of other users breaking into their networks and hogging their broadband connection - a worry that causes them to encrypt communication - Greitzer dismisses the notion with a smile. "For a hacker, the only thing that is different about an ordinary modem, ADSL or cable connection and a wireless network is that the wireless network saves him from having to find out the IP address of the computer that he wants to break into."

Nevertheless, explains Greitzer, the fact that someone is hooked up through someone else's wireless network doesn't mean that the outside user has access to the computer that is linked to the service provider. "In any case, everyone has to protect his computer with a firewall and an updated version of its operating system, and that has nothing to do with sharing of the Internet connection," says Greitzer. "There are safety precautions that have to be observed. It's like how you are supposed to use a condom even when you have sex with someone you know."

At the micro level

Greitzer is much less unequivocal when it comes to the issue of legal responsibility for wireless communications. "If someone would be on the network, spreading viruses through the connection, I suppose that at some point the FBI would come to the owner of the network and start asking questions," he says. "Conversely, think of the owner of a snack bar that has a public phone, and someone places a call on it and threatens to kill the prime minister. Is the owner of the snack bar responsible for what people said on the line that he is supplying to his clients as a service? Obviously not."

One possible solution to the problem, says Greitzer, would be the creation of an HTML page that would pop up in the browser of every computer that would be linked to one of the wireless networks, which would oblige the user to affirm that use of the network is being carried out at his own responsibility. In any event, Greitzer intends to consult an attorney on the matter.

Do you think that what is happening on this block will encourage other areas to go wireless?

"I very much hope so. I think it will gradually happen in certain areas in central Tel Aviv, at the university, on Judah Maccabi Street and on Sheinkin Street, but I think that it will come from the coffee shops, and not from the private users. Businesses have an interest in keeping the network open, without encryption, and I very much hope that there will be people who see other people surfing the Web without wires, who will ask how it works, and may want to have it at home, too. In the future, as in New York or San Francisco or London, people will slowly but surely begin to get used to the service being available everywhere, like cellular phones. I'm only doing it at the micro level."