The proliferation of open Wi-Fi networks has reached a point where high speed Internet access is free to anyone with a Wi-Fi card in many downtowns, villages, shopping centers, apartment complexes, etc. throughout the country. These networks are being hosted by individuals, cafes, restaurants, schools, corporations, and even local governments. This free access has not only made staying productive and in-touch easier, it has also helped to reinvigorate neighborhood gathering places as people, un-tethered from their desks, choose more social contexts and comfortable venues from which to work.

Just as PCs and the Internet transformed how work is done, so too is Wi-Fi shifting the nature of business and work. In the case of Wi-Fi, it is not simply a matter of improving productivity or access to information. Rather, Wi-Fi is enabling people to reconnect with one another – not in a virtual sense as the Internet itself has, but in the sense that people are able to escape the stuffy confines of offices and cubicles, where human interaction is often quite limited, and engage the real world in cafes and coffee shops, where people can meet and talk while working from their laptops.

The difference is profound. In an office environment, people are often encaged in their own small world, working for hours at a time without speaking to anyone else. It is not uncommon for someone to instant message a co-worker in the cubicle or office right next to their own rather than actually making an effort to have a verbal conversation with them. Humans are fundamentally a social species, and an unfortunate by-product of our virtual evolution is that we have begun to regress in the physical sphere of existence. While we may be more connected to one another regarding information, we have become more disconnected on an emotional and pschological level.

And while business transactions are vastly more efficient, this disconnection may be hindering the business process in other, less tangible ways. Business is built around deal making, and deal making was, is, and always will be about building relationships and trust. Developing a rapport with a business partner, customer, vendor, etc. requires a more intimate understanding of who the other party is, beyond what can be conveyed in e-mails, instant messages, faxes, or even phones. Abundant and free Wi-Fi access enables business people to maintain access to the wealth of information and transactional cababilities provided by the Internet while concommitantly handling the softer side of business by having lunch or dinner with business associates.

Business is also highly dependent upon networking. Although networking is often focused on finding others within the immediate realm of business, it should not be exclusively tied to this small group. One never knows when a friend or associate from outside of their normal business context may prove valuable in some business venture. Those individuals with the broadest set of personal connections are generally the most successful in life as well as business. Again, being freed from the office prison allows people to work on building their personal networks at the same time they are accomplishing direct, measurable business-related work.

Given the revolutionary power of this concept, it is troubling that there may be some legal complications brewing regarding open Wi-Fi access. A recent story describes a case where a Florida man is being sued for utilizing someone else’s Wi-Fi network. The charge, unauthorized access to a network, is a third-degree felony in that state. The law, which predates Wi-Fi technology, probably was drafted without it in mind. One may ask whether it is illegally accessing a network if it is completely open? Whatever the court decides will likely have a profound effect on how we use open Wi-Fi networks.