An unsolved problem in digital home infrastructures

Yesterday I met with a company in Paris to progress a business opportunity, on which I will report later. They are deploying a computing device in customer homes, which connects by wifi to the Internet. Some people call this ‘ambient intelligence‘. The connectivity is absolutely essential to the operation of the device. However, it turns out that it is not easy to deploy.

A few years ago, wifi stations in residential settings were typically wide open, as various stories about ‘war-driving the neighbourhood’ show.

In fact, in the Paris apartment were I stay, I can pick up a wifi network named after a big brand manufacturer who shall remain nameless. This indicates that the network was deployed out of the box, unprotected, not secured. These days, wifi often comes bundled with an broadband internet connection. Some consider the massive deployment of open access points a criminal act because it exposes unprotected home computers to systematic hacking. It does to computer viruses what unsafe sex does to HIV.

Currently a number of techniques are used by Internet providers to deploy these devices. Wanadoo France (now Orange) used to secure the wifi stations, and give them all unique names and passwords. Another ISP I know of leaves the networks open, but gives them a random name, and hides that. This then in effect becomes a password.

All in all, these techniques try to strike a balance between usability and safety. It is a password distribution problem, and residential users are notoriously bad in handling passwords.

This situation does not make it easy for the company to have its users deploy their devices. In fact, they estimate that in 20-30% of the cases the customer does not succeed in connecting the device. The fact that the device does not have a keyboard makes it no easier.

What would be a solution for this problem? There are technical approaches and managerial approaches. Comparable problems exist in other wireless deployments: Dect phones, wireless keyboards, Bluetooth devices. A similar solution could be engineered, but it requires a feature in the wifi base stations. Another inroad is working with the party who deploys the base stations. There are two major providers in France, but such an approach does not scale worldwide.

What other ideas can you think of?

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