I recently found myself in the awkward position of existing without a permanent address, floating between residences and feeding a cat that didn't really like me. I also had no Internet connection, so I took my laptop for strolls through parks and city streets trying to find the warm glow of a wireless fidelity (WiFi) hotspot so I could check my e-mail.
Many cities around the world are purposely making free WiFi connections available in hopes of seducing the tech-savvy to their cities.
This month, the tiny island of Mauritius, peeking its head out of the Indian Ocean 900 kilometres east of Madagascar, came one step closer to becoming the world's first wireless nation.
A network is being constructed that will cloak the entire island (all 1,800 square kilometres of it) in a wireless connection, available free to businesses, locals and tourists alike.
Mauritius was having trouble with traditional businesses such as its sugar export. Add to this the fallout from last December's tsunami and Mauritius was looking at some serious financial trouble. Enterprising islanders came up with the plan of free wireless to lure cash to the island by turning it into a model for communications and network planning
But they'd better do it soon, say some analysts, since the telecom companies selling the service might be upset that citizens are getting the goods for free.
That conflict surfaced in Pennsylvania last year when local provider Verizon objected to Philadelphia's plan to provide free wireless connections for the whole city.
In a compromise, a bill was passed that gives the city until January 1, 2006, to complete the network with the provider of its choice. Otherwise, the contract goes to Verizon, which retains the right of first refusal.
Councillors announced last month that they have narrowed their search for network providers to Earthlink and Hewlett-Packard and are scrambling to get it ready before the end of the year.
Currently, 20 other states have similar legislation in the works that will make it illegal for cities to decide who will provide their networks: the decision will ultimately rest with the telecom company in the region. Last month, New Haven and San Francisco became the latest U.S. cities to follow in Philadelphia's footsteps, scrambling to find the best network providers before the law tells them who they have to hire.
Some opposing legislation is in the works, notably a federal bill called the Community Broadband Act of 2005, sponsored by senators Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and John McCain of Arizona, which would give municipalities much more leeway in building WiFi zones.
Online advocacy organization FreeNetworks.org envisions the creation of wireless networks that traverse not only city streets but also international boundaries.
Free networks are currently available all across the globe, and the site has an excellent list of free hotspots organized by city.
In Canada, groups like BC Wireless are pushing for free province-wide Internet access. In Montreal, volunteers in growing organizations such as Ile Sans Fil (Wireless Island) are actually installing and maintaining their own hotspots all across the city.
Lists of free WiFi hotspots in Toronto can be found at www.wififreespot.com, but no community group has been specifically organized to oversee the growth of community wireless here.
If we don't start defending our right to share networks, we might find ourselves shut inside our homes once the telecoms decide they're not making enough bucks off them.