Wireless Freenets Put Down Roots

By Gerry Blackwell

July 17, 2001

Community-minded folks are setting up inexpensive 802.11b radios and antennas and beaming Internet traffic to the masses. Will this undermine local commercial service providers?

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—theoretically, 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 potentially get access.

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 enthusiast phase. But Internet access for the people is obviously the point here.

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, says 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," says 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 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.

Stalking the future
For one thing, Kahle says 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."

That future may in fact be receding for many people, 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 says. "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 notes, 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 points out.

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 says. 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 notes, 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 talks 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 admits, 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 says, since some ISPs only restrict sharing for commercial purposes.

Shared opportunity
So, do freenets pose a threat to ISPs? It's possible that community WLANs 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 nowor may be asking soon if their prices go up.

Would it make economic sense 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 says of the ISP community.

Maybe, but the community net movement would have to get a whole lot more "viral" before it would be really attractive to a profit-minded provider.



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