Free in San Diego

By Gerry Blackwell

May 03, 2004

Can a loose-knit network of wireless users groups maintain a ubiquitous city-wide network and provide a reliable enough service to keep users online? SocalFreeNet says it can.

It takes a determined skeptic to see the downside of a project like SocalFreeNet, a community Wi-Fi freenet started by the 250-member San Diego Wireless Users Group (SDWUG).

The network so far has a dozen nodes in suburban communities in San Diego, but is also working with wireless user groups in nearby Orange County and Pasadena. It has aspirations to eventually blanket southern California with free Wi-Fi service. Hence the name.

"We have set some internal goals," SDWUG president Lee Barken says of the local project. "We'd ultimately like by the end of next year to have 100 nodes. But our growth model is very organic."

Organic growth means that, as with other freenets and unlike in commercial roll-outs, SocalFreeNet relies on community-spirited benefactors, in some cases individual home owners, to shell out between $600 and $1,200 to establish a network node to spread the coverage footprint.

It's that community spirit that makes freenets irresistible. This one has attracted a fair amount of attention locally, partly because it is so clearly driven by ideals and good-hearted enthusiasm.

"A project by the community for the community" is how the SocalFreeNet Web site bills the network.

Barken, whose day job is co-director of a technology research center attached to San Diego State University, describes the SDWUG as "a group of wireless enthusiasts who like to learn and share their passion for learning and for building wireless networks."

The SocalFreeNet project got its start when a local property owner with several multi-dwelling units (MDUs) in the city's Gold Hill neighborhood heard about the WUG and asked if it could help him provide a free wireless Internet service.

The un-named benefactor was willing to invest in hardware and access fees and let the roof of one of his buildings be used as the first node in the network.

"He was just very enthusiastic about improving the community, and about providing free Internet access as a benefit, as a way of giving back to the community," Barken says. "He's a neat guy, very community oriented."

Other property owners have since jumped on board -- according to Barken, "in that same spirit of sharing. It's really neat to see."

Of course, as he points out, there are also business benefits to the MDU owners, who can use the lure of free high-speed Internet access to attract new tenants.

Barken is ever anxious to cast the project in the right, rosy, light. He notes that safety and scrupulous legality are key drivers. The SDWUG asked its benefactor to change his Internet service provider, for example, when it realized that sharing the signal contravened the terms of the service agreement with the original service provider.

SocalFreeNet will only tolerate Internet connections with service providers that explicitly permit, or better yet encourage, sharing. The two it currently recommends are Speakeasy and Megapath Networks.

Also, SocalFreeNet is not, like some freenet projects, about sticking it to the telcos, Barken insists.

"That's definitely not what this is all about," he says. "Sure, some users have cancelled their DSL services, but that's not what's driving us. It's not our focus or mission."

Freenet proponents insist, and the organizers of SocalFreeNet are no exception, that they are a mechanism for spreading Wi-Fi access quickly while improving their communities.

"My sense is that the free model has a lot more momentum right now than the pay model," Barken says.

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