Some of our neighbours haven’t been able to afford Internet access at home for a long time. Their kids have had to make do with free, open WiFi connections to the Internet that’s been made available at their school or local library, coffee shops and fast food restaurants, friends’ and relations’ houses, and so forth. As the importance of the Internet in our daily lives has grown, so too has concern about the wide variety of social, educational, and economic disadvantages that beset families who can’t afford access to what has become essentially a basic necessity of modern life.
The COVID-19 pandemic will only exacerbate these inequities.
First, lower-income families will be disproportionately negatively impacted by the economic upheaval posed by the pandemic. Some of these families will undoubtedly need to cancel their Internet service to pay for food, housing, etc. In other words, the pandemic will increase the number of families and kids who can’t afford Internet access at home.
Second, the shutdown of schools due to the pandemic is likely to continue through to the end of the 2019-20 school year. This shutdown follows on the heels of job actions that have interrupted the education of every student in Ontario. The pandemic has necessitated a shift toward online learning to salvage what can be salvaged from this school year, for as many students as possible. In other words, the pandemic will increase the educational disadvantages to students whose families cannot afford Internet access at home.
Third, many of the ways that students have used to work-around the lack of Internet access at home – though a little inconvenient and embarrassing for them – have dried up. Schools and libraries are closed. Coffee shops and fast food restaurants are closed to sit-down customers. Friends and relations houses in self-isolation. In other words, the pandemic is a perfect storm for students whose families cannot afford Internet access at home.
That’s the problem in a nutshell – and I know I’m not alone in appreciating how bad this situation has become and is likely to worsen. I haven’t heard what solution the provincial government has in mind to address the issue – it’s got a lot on its plate these days.
In the meantime, I’d like to propose something that all of us with Internet access in our homes can do that will help in a pinch:
Create a “Guest” account on your WiFi router in order to share your access to the Internet with your neighbours.
Normally, a “Guest” WiFi account is used to provide visiting friends and relations, short-term stayers, and longer-term tenants, with Internet access in our homes. A “Guest” account is open, that is, not password-protected.
Using a “Guest” WiFI account has one great advantage over sharing the password to our “Main” WiFi account with others: a “Guest” WiFi account provides users with access only to the Internet – and no access to any of our own computers that are connected to the “Main” WiFI account. There’s a variety of ways that the WiFi routers supplied by different Internet Service Providers support the creation of “Guest” accounts. Here’s something from Bell Canada:
Guest Wi-Fi network
You can set up a guest WiFi network for visitors to your home. The guest network only provides access to the Internet. Guests don’t have access to the other devices on your network and cannot change your network’s settings.
If you’re not with Bell, your Internet Service Provider will have posted something similar that shouldn’t be too hard to find. I could help you find it, if you’d like.
Schools, libraries, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants, etc. essentially use “Guest” WiFi accounts to serve their students, subscribers, and customers better. You may have noticed that these establishments have other WiFi accounts for their own business purposes, and that these WiFi accounts are closed or password-protected. “Guest” and password-protected WiFi accounts allow businesses to wall-off their sensitive information from the general public, while extending a valuable service to those in their establishments.
You may have also noticed lots of password-protected WiFi connections in your neighbourhood; a few households may already have created a “Guest” account that’s kept open permanently or only while Cousin Mary is visiting. In fact, if you can see a “Guest” account on your computer or cellphone, you’re able to access the Internet through this account. You may never need to; you might think it’s rude (or even illegal) to do so without permission from the “owner” of the Internet access. But maybe you might need access to a “Guest” account for some reason to connect the Internet. For instance, you might be lost in a strange neighbourhood and you don’t have a data plan on your cellphone. How helpful it would be if you could connect to Google Maps! That sort of thing.
Of course, your WiFi router has a limited range – depending on the device, its location and the building materials used in your home, and so on. But your next-door neighbour is likely within range.
Maybe your next-door neighbour can’t afford Internet access at home. You can provide your neighbour with Internet access by creating a “Guest” account on your WiFi router.
There’s a range of opinions on the pros and cons of lots of us creating “Guest” accounts to help out our neighbours. I’ve presented the pros mainly. The cons tend to be: we don’t have unlimited monthly data plans and may cost us money; maybe someone will do something “bad” on the Internet while connected to our WiFi router; maybe Bell Canada won’t appreciate our giving away their service to “strangers” for free.
Here are a few articles I like (you’ll want to do your own research). The authors are tech-savvy, security-conscious, and socially-conscious individuals. I’m sorry that they’re all men:
- Bruce Schneier, My Open Wireless Network (2008)
- Cory Doctorow, Why it’s good to leave your WiFi open (2008)
- Kaspersky, What’s a guest Wi-Fi network, and why do you need one? (2018)
It’s impossible to know how many of you will decide to create “Guest” accounts on your WiFi router – or who will benefit. I hope you’ll seriously consider this option and share it with friends.