Taming the Australian Airwaves

By Joe McGarvey

June 25, 2002

From Sydney to Tasmania, Wi-Fi communities are sprouting up across the Outback.

It's time to add another item to the survival provisions of those traveling to the remotest regions of the continent of Australia. Along with the anti-snake venom kit, shark repellant and English-to-Aboriginal Dictionary, intrepid travelers would do well to pack their laptops and 802.11 access gear.

While much of the land down under remains untamed, a grassroots movement among computer enthusiasts is steadily blanketing the Australian continent with networks based on Wi-Fi technology. From Melbourne, to Perth, to even tiny and isolated Tasmania, wireless networks offering both Internet access and high-speed links to private networks have become the biggest thing to hit the Outback since CBS wrapped up its Survivor series.

Providing some of the logistical work for coordinating the growth of community-based wireless networks is Xnet Wireless, an Australia-based business that maintains a Web site that provides resources for building wireless networks and links to existing Wi-Fi hotspots across the continent. Xnet's proprietor, Paul Young, says that the tutorials and links on the site are an add-on to the companies wireless hardware business.

"We provide the free services in order to grow the wireless market and create interest in out products," says Young, who was interviewed through e-mail exchanges with 802.11 Planet.

Young says that most of the participants in community wireless networks have so far been hobbyists and technicians who have capitalized on the low-cost of wireless technology to string up a high-speed network to largely share files and play games. Another perk of the wireless communities, says Young, is the ability to share Internet access.

For Australians who live and work outside of major cities, Young says broadband Internet access is difficult to find.

"Australia seems to be lagging behind some other countries when it comes to broadband Internet access," he says. "This is made worse by the fact that it is a very large country with low population densities outside the capital cities."

For the most part, Internet access doesn't seem to be much more expensive than access charges in the United States. Young says that a typical dial up line is about $25 to $30 a month in US money for unlimited access. A broadband cable connection, he says, runs about $65 a month, with a cap on what subscribers can download.

In addition, Jean-Michel "Mick" Howland, who runs a seven-node Wi-Fi network in Perth called innaloo.net, says that Internet access providers charge extra for long distance and international traffic. That's the primary reason Howland does not plan to allow his wireless network subscribers to share access to the Internet over his DSL line.

Fitting the pattern of most of the Wi-Fi networks that are springing up down under, innaloo.net is primarily dedicated to high-speed exchanges among a group of friends or colleagues. "Most of the people on the network work in the IT field and rely a lot on the network for after-hours maintenance of systems at work," says Howland. "So the value would be almost essential in some ways."

Both Young and Howland, who was also interviewed via e-mail, cite the ease of use and low-cost of using unlicensed wireless spectrum as the primary catalyst for the surge in community-based wireless networks across Australia.

"I guess once again it all boils down to money," says Howland. "We can link together friends at multi-megabit speeds for nothing. To do this using normal telephone companies, such as Telstra, would cost us tens of thousands of dollars per month."

Howland says that in 1999 he was paying about $2,500 Australian for a 2Mbps connection to a point of presence (POP) in Perth, which is about 8 kilometers from innaloo's hub.

In Tasmania, an island about the size of West Virginia off the southern coast of Australia, a group of wireless users have launched the Tasmanian Public Airwave Network (TPAN). According to the organization's FAQ, one of the major motivations is to help IT workers defray some of the expense of downloading large files from the Internet.

According to the document, Internet access in isolated Tasmania is largely based on a per-bit pricing scheme. Downloading the Linux kernel, for example, could cost an Internet subscriber roughly $17, according to the TPAN site. By hosting files frequently downloaded by small businesses on a wireless network with no access charges, business could have high-speed access to vital information without paying an arm and leg to download it from the Internet. (The operators of the TPAN network did not return any e-mail inquiries.)

While the majority of community networks across Australia are not interconnected, Young says that one of the functions of Xnet is to provide a sort of clearinghouse for information that will help operators of individual networks forge peering relationships. At this point, says Young, ISPs don't seem to be concerned that Wi-Fi hotspots that share Internet access are siphoning off significant revenue.

He says that the small amount of Internet sharing that goes on among members of a Wi-Fi community has yet to capture the attentions of ISPs.

As these networks grow and become united, however, that situation could change.

Joe McGarvey is a network and telecommunications writer based in New York. He can be reached at mcgarvey@optonline.net

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