So far, only NYCwireless has set out with overtly altruistic aims. Most of the wireless groups have what Barrett Canon, founder of a Houston-area network, describes as selfish motives: “We just wanted to be able to get on the Net wherever we are.” Others want to bridge “the last mile”-bringing high-speed Internet access to homes-and to bring down the cost of high-bandwidth Internet access by essentially pooling access. Perhaps the grandest scheme belongs to SeattleWireless: rather than providing Internet connections, this group aims to build a free wireless infrastructure that allows any point in the city to talk to any other point-affording access to work files from home, for example.These groups all have at least one thing in common. Their practice of “redistributing” bandwidth runs up against some legal obstacles. Most service agreements for DSL or cable modem access essentially say, “Thou shalt not carry other people’s traffic,’” says Lenny Foner, founder of Somerville, MA-based wireless cooperative Davis-Net. Broadband Internet service providers are not keen on people sharing bandwidth. Indeed, AT&T Broadband spokesperson Sarah Duisik likens the practice to stealing cable TV. Regardless of its legality or morality, though, bandwidth sharing turns out to be tough for Internet service providers to detect. “For Davis-Net, we expect use will be barely above background,” says Foner. Since most network users will only, say, check their e-mail or surf the Web, “the traffic isn’t going to go up much. It’s kind of tiny compared to the traffic one machine downloading MP3s generates.”
NYCwireless hopes to avoid this problem altogether; it recommends that members who want to provide a gateway to the Internet carefully check their service agreements or make a contribution to help purchase a wholesale connection (the kind service providers themselves resell). The group has also established an “acceptable use” policy that all users must abide by, in part to shield the people who open their Internet access to wireless users from liability for any illegal activities in which those users might engage.
The legal issues can seem like a cakewalk next to the technical problems the networks face. The networks use an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum that, while free, is also crowded: cordless phones, ham radios and microwave ovens all operate at the same frequency. In addition, Federal Communications Commission regulations give priority to ham operators, satellite communications and industrial, scientific and medical users. If a wireless network interferes with any of those, it has to shut down. What’s more, buildings, hills and trees can block the signals, which under ideal conditions travel perhaps 800 meters-only about 10 city blocks. As a result, it is difficult to create extensive networks in crowded cities.
Other issues that Wi-Fi networks face include the absence of built-in privacy mechanisms, the potential for unscrupulous users to hog bandwidth and what is known as the “roaming problem.” (In a basic network setup, users who wander around will lose their connections as they move from one connection point to another.) While various groups are working on technical solutions to each of these problems, no one organization is trying to solve them all.
Despite the legal, regulatory and technical hurdles, cooperatively owned wireless networks are gaining popularity. Some see that trend as pointing to a revolution in the way people access the Internet. Mark Schultz, a senior associate at law firm Baker and McKenzie who works pro bono for NYCwireless, says, “You have to wonder whether it’s going to be part of the infrastructure of the future, just like the streets or the electricity or the sewers and everything else. Whether Internet access is something we’re all just going to have ubiquitous access to. That would be cool. And this may be a first step to that.”