Thursday, 23 July 2015

Eduroam and public wi-fi networks ...

I've previously sung the praises of Eduroam, and it remains by default networking solution when visiting other institutions, but yesterday I had an experience which made me question whether Eduroam is the only solution.

I was at a meeting at the University of Canberra and I'd taken my Xubuntu netbook as a writing device. When I got there, I discovered that I'd forgotten to configure Eduroam on it. Major fail on my part.

So I pulled out my old 7 inch note taking tablet, only to discover that while it was fully charged and connected to eduroam, its certificate was out of date, meaning it wouldn't authenticate (it could of course just be that I'd stuffed up the eduroam configuration – but the middle of a conference on e-research is not the place for network debugging).

And this of course highlights one of the problems with eduroam – the configuration is tricky, and non standard – it's not like most public wifi systems where you get a private ip address, and then sign into the network, provide some identity data and tick the box agreeing to abide by the conditions of use and not do anything involving naughty Nora and her oscillating hamsters.

Setting up to use eduroam involves installing a certificate on your machine and configuring some settings. Not difficult, but fiddly and outside most non-geeks' experience.

The other problem with eduroam is that it assumes that you have a university internet account and can authenticate appropriately. Not all visitors to campus do, such as visitors from government research organisations, commercial bodies, and overseas academic institutions, particularly those in SE Asia.

Like all universities in Australia, UC have an eduroam service. But they also have a new experimental service called UC-visitor, where, you guessed it, you sign in just as you would to a public network in an airport, on a train, or in a shopping centre. I'm assuming that they do some rate limiting to prevent abuse and track usage to avoid people using it as a substitute for their 3G connections.

In use, the service was perfectly adequate for email, tweeting and syncing a file to dropbox, which basically is all you want to do, ie write stuff, show people stuff, tell people about stuff.

Eduroam is a service that has its roots in the days when internet access and particularly high speed internet access was expensive and therefore rationed. We're not living in that world any more.

In Croatia and Slovenia, even Sri Lanka, internet is everywhere – in Croatia,  coffee shops and petrol stations offer it for free, without any need for authentication, and even in one case, a small coastal town (Drvenik to be precise) provided free connectivity on its beach strip. Interestingly, the University of York has recently brought the York city public wi-fi network onto campus, while also extending eduroam coverage to the city network.

In a world where free public internet is increasingly becoming the norm, does Eduroam require a reboot?

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