[isf-wifidog] ARTICLE: Advocates of Wi-Fi in Cities Learn Art of Politics

Dana Spiegel dana at sociableDESIGN.com
Jeu 19 Jan 00:07:44 EST 2006

A great article in thursday's NYTimes about Community Wireless


January 19, 2006

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  

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  

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  

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  

"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."

Dana Spiegel
Executive Director
dana at NYCwireless.net
+1 917 402 0422

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