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Unwiring the Web

Community-owned wireless networks are gaining popularity-and could help bridge the digital divide.
December 1, 2001

It’s an increasingly common scene: a telecommuter perched on a park bench, pecking away at a laptop. But a peek over her shoulder reveals a more startling sight: she’s surfing the Web, outdoors and cable free.

Anywhere, anytime Internet access is gaining ground across the United States as wireless networks owned and run by their users spring up in more cities each month-25 at last count. Although companies like Texas-based Wayport and MobileStar have provided wireless access in places like hotels, airports and coffee shops, the new cooperatively run networks are, for the first time, allowing users to surf in outdoor public areas. These networks are set up by groups whose members lend out their Internet access by hooking high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem connections up to wireless base stations. These base stations transmit the bandwidth to any nearby computer-commonly a laptop or handheld-equipped with an antenna to receive the signal.

What began on the West Coast as “geek networks” set up mainly by computer professionals has taken a socially conscious turn in New York City. Urban researcher Anthony Townsend helped create NYCwireless, a volunteer organization, not just to provide wireless Internet access in New York’s public spaces but also to bridge the digital divide, bringing broadband Internet access to poorer parts of the city. “A lot of the other groups are interested in building a network that’s for themselves when they’re outside the office or home,” says Townsend. “We’re trying to build a public service.”

Townsend cofounded NYCwireless earlier this year after some Boston-area friends tried to set up a wireless network for a more mundane reason: they couldn’t get high-speed Internet access in their neighborhoods. He found that the same was true in many areas of New York, especially low-income areas, where he asserts cable and telephone companies have not upgraded their infrastructure to bring in broadband access. While Verizon, for instance, says DSL service is available in every area of Manhattan, NYCwireless’s mapping has shown the service’s coverage is not nearly as extensive in Harlem as in other neighborhoods.

NYCwireless is trying to create formal relationships with organizations that control public spaces; it has begun providing Internet access in public areas by establishing six wireless access points around the city, including in Washington Square Park, and is talking with Amtrak about bringing access to Penn Station. And NYCwireless started its efforts to bridge the digital divide by submitting an Urban Empowerment Zone grant application, along with other area groups, to provide wireless broadband access to housing projects and other buildings in Yonkers, just north of New York City. The organization also has plans to gather financial and equipment donations to provide low-income residents with computers that can access the networks.

Community-based wireless networks date back at least to 1996, when Sun Microsystems set an experimental one up in Aspen, CO. But it wasn’t until Apple Computer popularized the 802.11b wireless networking standard-or “Wi-Fi”-with its AirPort wireless base stations that the idea caught on. “Apple was really the company that started it,” says Nigel Ballard, a wireless consultant involved in Portland, OR’s Personal Telco community network. “Up until then, it was just too expensive for consumers.” Since then, community-owned wireless networks have emerged nationwide, each with slightly different motives and methods.

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.”

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