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NANs: Borrow a Cup of Wireless Broadband?

Remember the days of tightly woven neighborhoods? It wasn't uncommon to ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar, borrow the hedge clippers or to use the telephone. In a 21st-Century attempt to regain that closeness, an ever-growing band of wireless community networks, AKA Freenets or neighborhood area networks (NANs) are sprouting up across the country.

"I would have to guess at thousands," says Tim Pozar in trying to estimate the number of active NANs in the U.S. Pozar is with the Bay Area Wireless Group, a San Francisco group devoted to the community network concept.

NANs are an off-shoot of wireless local area networks (WLANs) and Wi-Fi 'hotspots,' with some major differences. Unlike corporate WLANs, NANs are usually setup by an individual to serve either a family or a few neighbors.

Wi-Fi Block Party "A NAN covers some small number of blocks around an access point (AP)," says Pozar. With an omni-directional antenna, a single AP could cover up to a one kilometer radius. People wanting to connect to a NAN could then use a directional antenna to hone into the AP's signal.

Pozar says there is no typical NAN provider. It can be an individual or a group of people coming together to share broadband connections.

The NAN concept is relatively simple. You have a broadband connection, either cable modem or DSL, and you want to share it. Someone with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or PDA sitting next door could then connect wirelessly to the Internet, search Google, or check e-mail through your connection.

High-tech marketing research firm In-Stat/MDR predicts the commercial hotspot market will expand from 2,000 locations in 2001 to 42,000 sites worldwide by 2006. Hotspots, like those offered by Starbucks, differs from NANs in that commercial hotspots have a reach of just 300 feet -- enough to lure tech-savvy customers in to a restaurant, coffee house or airport. NANs have a wider reach, yet proponents, like Pozar, see commercializing NANs as one way to quicken the spread of neighborhood Wi-Fi networks.

Hotspot Hot Water

Although the idea of sharing surplus bandwidth with neighbors seems a reasonable solution, many broadband providers see it differently. An individual broadband customer runs the risk of violating his service agreement by letting others connect.

Time Warner says it is believes NANs violate the service agreement residential customers sign. The company, known for its Road Runner cable modem service, says it hasn't decided whether or not to prosecute violators.

AT&T Broadband views neighborhood Wi-Fi networks in the same vein as people stealing cable television. AT&T says when monitoring turns up inordinately high continuous usage, service is terminated. AT&T says being unable to manage bandwidth use degrades overall performance of a network, making it difficult to deliver the type of service customers expect.

An increase in Wi-Fi hotspots shared by neighbors could result in broadband providers shifting from flat-fee pricing to prices based on usage, according to Russ Craig, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group research company.

Then there are companies such Covad, a wholesaler of DSL. Rather than a threat, the national company sees broadband customers sharing a connection with multiple wireless users as an opportunity to sell more bandwidth.

Pozar says his Bay Area Wireless "promotes the legal use of wireless technology" and advises people interested in sharing their broadband connection to first check their ISP's acceptable use policy. It has been his experience that cable modem broadband providers are stricter than DSL companies. Pozar points to Pacific Bell's DSL as one service that doesn't strictly prohibit sharing a residential connection.

Cashing In on NANs

Two companies have already begun making tentative steps in this direction.

New York-based Joltage Networks wants to give individuals wishing to set up an 802.11 access point a cut of the revenue when becoming a micro-wireless ISP or 'HotSpot provider.' They can either share the revenue from opening a hotspot or provide free access and use the software to manage users. Taking a page from the Avon lady's playbook, Joltage would also pay people who bring others into the organization.

On the West Coast, San Francisco-based Sputnik calls those willing to open up their broadband connection to wireless users "Sputnik Affiliates." The open source Sputnik Gateway software includes a built-in router, a firewall and SSL-based authentication. Sputnik Affiliates are able to wander freely through the various gateways.

What does it take to establish your very own NAN? Nothing fancy, says Pozar. "Normally, just an access point, some coaxial cable and an external antenna. Figure $500 for an average setup," Pozar told 80211 Planet.

Are NANs likely to catch fire, as hotspots already have? "All I can say is we have hundreds of them listed for the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle," Pozar says. A partial list can be found at the Personal Telco Project. "I bet there are 10 times more out there that are not listed" because they are feeding wireless broadband to their own neighbors, Pozar says.

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