Free in San Diego - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

May 03, 2004

Barken says SocalFreeNet hasn't even run across commercial service providers in its coverage areas yet, though he says it is a concern and that it will eventually happen. He admits there was one case in the city's Little Italy area, before SocalFreeNet got started. A for-pay coffee shop hotspot service was inadvertently hijacking would-be users of a nearby single-node freenet. When the freenet operator confronted him, the coffee shop owner was apologetic and immediately agreed to back off and let the freenet provide the service to his customers, Barken says.

He doesn't believe freenets are a threat to for-fee hotspot or access services.

"My personal opinion is that there will be room for both," Barken says. "I see for-pay [hotspot] models thriving in places where there is a captive audience -- in hotels, in airports, convention centers -- where somebody doesn't otherwise have a choice."

Also, freenets are really not competition for business grade access services. "If you're running a business and the Internet is mission critical to it, [a freenet] is not for you," Barken says. Its not for people who need a 24/7 monitored service with somebody to yell at the end of a technical support line when service is interrupted.

"The reality is, we're providing a best-effort service. We think it's better than nothing, but even though we're trying to engineer in some redundancy, you can have unexpected outages. People are more accommodating of that because it's free."

It's not clear how many users the San Diego freenet is attracting. The network doesn't currently require users to register, though it's considering changing that.

Keeping count is also complicated by the fact that some users only log on at coffee houses and other public locations in the Gold Hill district, the freenet's epicenter, and the other communities covered, which include Sherman Heights, Ocean Beach, Carmel Valley and Clairemont Mesa.

Home owners can purchase a pre-configured client bridge kit that WUG members assemble and sell at cost for $90. The kit includes a D-Link radio, antenna, software and instructions for aiming the antenna at the nearest node. Anyone can pick up a kit at a local coffee shop.

The network itself "involves some complexity," Barken says. "Which is part of what makes it a lot of fun."

The WUG has built wireless -- 802.11a and b -- backhaul links from each node to the hub node, the original MDU, where the one DSL connection comes in to the Gold Hill subnet. Another DSL link connected elsewhere in the network is now planned to provide redundancy.

The node hardware used is not strictly off-the-shelf. The group's Web site provides detailed instructions on how to build nodes by cannibalizing off-the-shelf products. Some have been built using surplus access points at very low cost.

This kind of grassroots, make-do spirit could carry the SocalFreeNet, and freenets in general, a long way.

"The key is to harness the power of the users groups," Barken says. "They're full of talented people eager to get experience and learn from and teach each other."

One hopes this very laudable spirit that Barken talks about harnessing is something that will last, that enough volunteers -- net nannies, he calls them -- will always be available and willing to put in the hours to maintain and troubleshoot a network that can only get more complex as it spreads.

"We'd love to grow it to all of southern California, but we're focusing right now on San Diego," Barken says.

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