Wireless FreeNets the Wave of the Future?

There is a movement afoot in America and elsewhere to build citywide
networks of linked 802.11b access points — owned and operated by individuals
in loose-knit community groups.

You could go sit in the park with your laptop or handheld PC and access
the Net at 1 Mbps via an antenna on the roof of somebody’s nearby home.

The cost to you for infrastructure services — the access points and
backbone links that provide the wireless access — zero. Civic minded
individuals and companies will supposedly shell out the money to put up
the antennas and radios.

Reality check
If you think this sounds crazy, think again. There are already groups
doing it in 12 U.S. cities, including three in Seattle and two in the
Bay Area.

There are also six groups in five cities in Australia, at least one in
Canada, as well as groups in France, Finland, Sweden and the UK, where
there are three.

A hobbyist or enthusiast sets up a radio in his apartment building and
maybe an antenna on the roof and posts notices in the building that anyone
with a Wi-Fi (802.11b) modem or PC card can access the network. Anyone
within a few block radius can also get access.

Insecure? As hell.

The access points may or may not be linked and may or may not provide
access out onto the Internet. It’s still early days, in the hobbyist phase.
But Internet access is obviously the point here.

Hence the threat and opportunity for ISPs.

The Bay Area
Wireless User Group
already has 21 access nodes. SeattleWireless
has ten. GuerillaNet
in Boston appears to have about five.

The first node in the SeattleWireless net only went up in October last
year. The movement started slowly but picked up speed as prices for equipment
began to come down, said Ken Caruso, a spokesman for the group.

Wireless libertarians
Caruso is typical of the membership. SeattleWireless’s mailings go out
to over 200 users and node operators. Most node operators, like Caruso,
are networking or computer professionals, though a few now are home enthusiasts.

Why would they do it? It costs about $1,000 to set up an access node,
slightly less if you want to build your own antenna or can use an old
486 PC running Linux for a server.

“I think most of it is philosophically motivated,” said Caruso. “You
do it to provide access to the neighborhood because you’re a community-oriented
person and you believe this is the right way to the go.”

That’s no doubt part of it. But Brewster Kahle of SFLan,
the group that kick-started the community net movement in the Bay Area,
has a slightly different take.

Kahle’s day job is president of Alexa
Internet
an Amazon.com
subsidiary that sells browser plug-ins and related services. His company
is also a prime mover behind and funder of the non-profit Internet
Archive
, a Web repository of historic video content.

For one thing, Kahle said of motivations behind the community net movement,
“You get cool points for doing this. This stuff is really cool — watching
video on your PC just by walking around in a neighborhood. It’s living
the future.”

On a more serious note, that future may now be receding because of the
too-slow rollout of too-expensive broadband Internet access services.
Kahle believes community nets may be the best hope for ubiquitous low-cost
broadband access, something the industry desperately needs, he argues.

“We need to get video to people [over the Net],” Kahle said. “If we don’t,
I think interest is going to wane. People are expecting more and more.
Their computers are super fast, their hard disks are huge. But the bandwidth
sucks.”

Some industries, he noted, assume prices go up, others that they go down.
The computer industry has always assumed they go down — witness Moore’s
law which continues to apply. It says computer price-performance will
continually improve.

On the other hand, phone and cable companies, the primary purveyors of
broadband access services, assume prices go up, Kahle maintained.

This may not be quite fair to the telecom industry in general which has
seen long distance rates, for example, plummet over the past 15 years.
But Kahle is right that the economics of the cable and phone industries
are holding up the spread of broadband access.

Are community wireless nets the way to break the logjam?

Populist impediments
There are still big obstacles, Kahle said. One is the dearth of low-cost,
high-power radios. Most 802.11b radios today are 30 or 100 milliwatts,
even though FCC
regulations allow them to operate at up to 1 watt.

One-watt radios and repeaters would mean greater range and wider coverage.
Lower prices would encourage more private, volunteer node operators to
come forward. The current $1,000 price tag, Kahle noted, is “above most
people’s play money.”

Lower prices and more power together would create “a whole viral thing,”
he believes, and community nets would spread rapidly.

But what about Internet access? That after all is the point, although
SeattleWireless’s Caruso also talked about setting up community intranets
with local content.

While his group is strictly non-profit and doesn’t have plans to solicit
funds or even set up a mechanism to accept funds, it has no objections
to members using the local infrastructure to operate a business, even
provide Internet access.

At the moment, he admited, some node operators may be giving users free
access through their high-speed DSL or cable connections. This may even
be strictly speaking legal, Caruso said, since some ISPs only restrict
sharing for commercial purposes.

Shared opportunity
So, okay, yes, there is a threat to some ISPs that community nets could
sneak a lot of non-paying users on to their networks and chew up bandwidth
without bringing in any additional revenue.

But maybe there’s also an opportunity here. Most people would be willing
to pay for high-speed access, just not as much as the cable and phone
companies are asking now — or may be asking soon if their prices go
up.

So what are the economics for an ISP to connect to a community net backbone
node with a big pipe and offer everybody on the net, including occasional
mobile users, broadband access at rock-bottom prices?

Keep in mind that somebody else is paying for the last mile access network — the
subscribers themselves. And you’d have a captive market. “This should
be right down their alley,” Kahle said of the ISP community.

Story courtesy of ISP-Planet.com.

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