Advocates of Wi-Fi in Cities Learn Art of Politics
SEATTLE, Jan. 18 - The idea of building citywide wireless networks from the community level was suspiciously simple back in 2000, although the plans sounded like the work of underground revolutionaries. "All of us were very idealistic, and all quite strongly opinionated," said Adam Shand, founder of Personal Telco, which had visions of such a network in Portland, Ore.
There as elsewhere, it was seen as a three-step process.
First, build home-brew Wi-Fi antennas and develop software to make outdoor wireless networks affordable and practical.
Second, persuade thousands of people in each city to stick Wi-Fi antennas out their windows, on their roofs or in their places of business to serve collectively as the nodes of a network. (Some groups sought to share existing commercial broadband Internet access - often regardless of whether an Internet service provider allowed that kind of sharing - while others wanted to build a separate community network.)
Third, link those thousands of nodes into neighborhood networks that would themselves connect into a cloud of free citywide Wi-Fi coverage. That's free as in free beer as well as free as in freedom: most advocates envisioned no restrictions on content or participation, and no access charges. In contrast, almost all early Wi-Fi hot spots were pinpoints of service, had fees attached and restricted use.
Step 2 was never completed, which is why victory speeches seem, at first glance, out of place. Nonetheless, "community wireless accomplished spectacularly well what it set out to do," said Dana Spiegel, president of NYCwireless, a volunteer wireless advocacy group in Manhattan.
While attendance at some community networking groups has plummeted and some smaller groups have disappeared, their technical and political impact has never been higher. Wireless advocates no longer dangle dangerously from rooftops mounting antennas built inside potato-chip cans, although some still provide technical help to business owners and nonprofit groups in creating free Wi-Fi hot spots.
"The problems that were hard in 2001 were technical ones," Mr. Spiegel said. "Now, they're personal and relationship and political ones. The technology, we almost don't even think about it anymore."
Greg Richardson, president of Civitium, a consulting firm, says that movement was the impetus for government-run citywide wireless Internet plans. Mr. Richardson has been a consultant on municipal wireless policy and technical issues for Philadelphia, San Francisco and other cities.
Community wireless gave municipal planners "the validation that a lot of those ideas could work," Mr. Richardson said. Early and continuing municipal efforts to provide small areas of free access in parks and downtown districts were and still are often created in conjunction with these community groups.
The move from building physical networks to building political influence, many advocates say, stems in part from an August 2004 forum organized by the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network in Illinois.
At the event, many community wireless leaders met for the first time. Sessions were conducted with politicians and members of nonprofit groups interested in diversifying media ownership. Sascha D. Meinrath, the network's project coordinator, said he saw a political awakening hit the technically focused participants.
"We could develop all of these technologies, we could come up with the holy grail of wireless technologies, and then it would be illegal to deploy it," he said. After they returned from the conference, several wireless advocates became involved in the political debates over municipal broadband. These debates intensified after Philadelphia announced in late 2004 that it would build a citywide Wi-Fi network.
In quick succession, other cities announced their own plans, including Minneapolis; San Francisco; Anaheim, Calif.; and Tempe, Ariz.
Much of the advocates' involvement has centered on stressing network neutrality, in which a network operator has little say over what devices are used on a network and for what purpose.
The issue became more prominent after recent statements by the chief executive of AT&T (the former SBC) suggesting that content providers like Google might be required to pay fees to reach AT&T's Internet access customers. Scattered reports also indicate that some access providers may be blocking or interrupting Internet phone services.
Michael Oh of NewburyOpen.net, a commercially sponsored free Wi-Fi zone on Newbury Street in Boston, said, "I don't think anyone in the SBC world or the policy-making world would have anticipated that there would have been anyone at the table like us when it came to municipal wireless."
Many wireless advocates said they already had relationships with local politicians, and now were stepping up to the state level; some were contacted by officials trying to make sense of broadband policy. Richard MacKinnon, founder of the Austin Wireless City Project, testified at state hearings in Texas and joined in a successful fight against a bill to restrict municipal broadband service.
Wireless advocates "have done more to bring forward the concerns of network neutrality as well as open access" than anyone else in the political process, Mr. Richardson said. "They have a very loud voice in an advocacy role."
A policy statement by NYCwireless lists several principles that define network neutrality: a city or network builder must resell service to other Internet service providers, avoid restrictions on content or types of service (like Internet phone service) and allow all legal devices to be connected to the network - meaning that Internet telephone adapters and wireless cameras would be as legitimate as laptop Wi-Fi cards.
Because of concerns over neutrality, many community groups have focused on how to create independent networks that require neither government support nor an Internet connection to be useful.
The Champaign-Urbana network is developing software that allows computers and Wi-Fi gateways to organize into a larger network as they find other nodes. The approach is called mesh networking; the software would be open sourced and distributed at no cost. (Mesh networks are to be the basis of all the municipal Wi-Fi networks currently planned, but are to use commercial equipment and proprietary software.)
Seattle Wireless is taking a different approach to creating fixed networks using wireless equipment. Since 2000, its founder, Matt Westervelt, and other members have planned to create a central point that would act as a relay medium for local groups seeking to connect their offices, create temporary networks for events or offer Internet connections to others.
His organization raised $2,500 for a climber to place network equipment on a cellular tower on Capitol Hill, one of the highest spots in Seattle. The cost of upkeep is to be donated by a private company.
Community advocates want to use both these independent networks and municipal broadband to carry new kinds of locally focused services and data.
Mr. Oh and The Boston Globe (a division of The New York Times Company) are experimenting in locations around Boston with what they call Pulse Points: freestanding Wi-Fi nodes with no Internet connections. These nodes carry only local discussion boards and information.
At a Pulse Point in the South Station train terminal, every other board posting in the early days "was a flame about why there was no free Internet access," Mr. Oh said. Now, the spot is routinely used to exchange information and personal stories.
Mr. Spiegel said that the transition from hardware and networks to the higher level of programs and politics was inevitable as networks spread.
"In the end, what all of us were trying to do was to change the way people thought about communications," he said. "The Internet wasn't something that you sat down at the computer to use, but that it was something that permeated our lives - it just didn't have the distribution to permeate our lives."