SoCal FreeNet Brings Free Wi-Fi to San Diego

By Naomi Graychase

July 25, 2006

Enthusiasts say supporting free wireless Internet access is about 'creating something bigger than ourselves.'

Three years ago, Matt Fanady, a twenty-something technology enthusiast living in Southern California, plugged in his first wireless Linksys router, shared it with his neighbors, and SoCal FreeNet was born.

Since then, SoCal FreeNet (not affiliated with The FreeNet Project), has grown into an active, all-volunteer non-profit group with several hundred members on its mailing list, several dozen active volunteers, a Web site, and more than 15 successful free public Wi-Fi network installs under its belt.

“We started from the San Diego Wireless User Group, (SDWUG) which is no longer in existence,” says Fanady. “We were a group of people who got together to talk about wireless on the technical side, and then in August of 2003, we had our first opportunity to install some gear. A landlord in Golden Hill saw a write-up in the paper and asked for our help. We said, ‘We’d be happy to get your tenants online, as long as you share with the greater community.’”

Among the tenants who benefited from that first network was Drew MacCullough, who now handles community relations for SoCal FreeNet.

“I got involved from the neighborhood, in a sense of giving back,” says MacCullough. “I was basically one of the beta testers for [the first] network. I was in the first building that was hooked up in Golden Hill. I didn’t have an Internet connection. One day, I got a note from my landlord saying, ‘This group of guys is going to come and poke around here, and get up on the roof, and when they’re done you’re all gonna have free Internet—Thanks.’”

“So it dropped into my lap. Once I figured out what it was, I got sucked into it. I started hanging out and learning what they were doing. Now, I’m the guy you call when you need some tech support. If my friends or neighbors have a problem, they call me. I’m one of the faces for this in my neighborhood.”

Fanady and MacCoullough, along with Michael Mee, who handles Project Management and R&D, and Wayne Suiter in charge of Web Development,  form the core group of organizers. Together, they put in roughly 100 hours per month on various SCFN projects.

“The feeling that this was becoming a job started to hit home when we all went to help in the disaster relief after Katrina,” says Fanady. “While we were gone, we had an electrical storm that took out three of our backhaul radios. One of our jobs, a nonprofit that uses our network as its sole Internet connection, was down for like a week. There are no contracts, but we sort of promised these people a certain quality of service. There is an element of responsibility.”

As it approached its third anniversary, the group recently returned to the site of its first network, Golden Hills Rentals (a.k.a. “The Pink Palace”) in the Golden Hill area of San Diego, and mounted its largest install yet.

“The landlord of the Pink Palace said, ‘I want this service to be something really special. Make this something that is more than just a radio on top of a roof. I’m ready to spend the money. Let’s make something happen,’” says Fanady. “We got a false start one day when we thought we’d do it one way, and then we scrapped and tried another plan, which evolved into the mega array.”

The range, says Fanady, is “pretty spectacular.” For an ordinary user, he estimates a range of “a couple thousand feet. If you were to take a powered bridge with you with a directional with line of sight, it could be miles.”

A large part of the SoCal FreeNet mission—and what Fanady and MacCoullough seem to enjoy most—is learning. Equipment, decisions, steps—and missteps—are chronicled at the site so that others can learn from their experience.

“This is an ongoing learning experience,” says MacCoullough. “It’s a matter of trial and error. People come into this and they throw around ideas, and then it doesn’t end up the way we hoped that it would, and you have to adjust course. I guess it’s fortunate in terms of true documentation that we can revise the Web site to say ‘We went down this path and it turned out to be a dead end.’ It’s all part of the learning process.”

The corps of volunteers who shows up for a build ranges from seasoned professionals to curious neighbors.

“We get a lot of people who do one facet of the project as their day job,” says MacCoullough. “Electricians. Tech programmers. Networking people. Wireless people. Everything from people who do the physical to the logical, and people who know nothing and want to learn. We don’t know all of these trades. There’s such a great learning experience involved for us. It’s so great: even at this point, we learn something new every time. It broadens us at every turn. We spread that around as much as we can. Even with the Web site, we are documenting as much as possible, the good, the bad, the ugly, of what we’ve done, so that others can learn from this.”

With the skills and reputation they’ve acquired, the SoCal FreeNet leaders could easily turn their grassroots community service into an entrepreneurial endeavor. But despite the large number of unpaid hours, the group’s commitment to creating free access remains unshakable.

“Free Internet over wireless is just the beginning of what will become possible as wireless technology improves and the general public becomes more aware of wireless networking in general,” says Fanady. “Free Internet was the carrot on the stick to get people to use the network, and to get landlords interested in paying for the gear. Everyone understands free Internet. However, the rather intangible possibilities of local wireless networks are very difficult to sell.”

“Part of our move to 802.11g from b [data rate of 54Mbps versus 11Mbps] was to create a fatter pipe to the end user so we can begin rolling out bandwidth-intensive applications, accessible only on the network,” Fanady says. “One of the first (and easiest) applications we will be rolling out is a Squid Transparent Proxy, which will store content from Web sites commonly visited and cache them for other users, so for instance, a commonly downloaded movie trailer would stream to clients at around 23 Mbps — much faster than any consumer-grade Internet connection could possibly deliver at this time.”

Future plans include Web servers running on the network, creating a community forum of sorts, where people could, for instance, post videos of local bands -- or, if the network grows enough, possibly stream these events live. “If we were to simply focus on coverage for the landlord's building and not the surrounding neighborhood, it would change the dynamic from a bunch of guys trying to build a large network encompassing as many people and as much acreage as possible, pushing the technology to its edge, to a couple of guys who help landlords increase their rents by offering ‘free Internet’,” Fanady says.

“Every day, we learn something new that we can use elsewhere in life,” he says. “We’re learning a new technology and creating something bigger than ourselves.”

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