Do-It-Yourself Broadband: Wireless for the Rest of Us

Many mobile Mac users, and PC users for that matter, are familiar with being able to wirelessly log on to the Internet from many public locations. Airport terminals, train stations, and even coffee shops now provide wireless Internet access. All you need is a compatible wireless NIC (Network Interface Card) and someplace on the Internet to go. For Mac users, that means that youive installed an Airport card, where you go on the Net is your business.

What most folks donit know is that there seems to be a grassroots effort to provide the same type of service to the average Joe that execs and the lucky ducks with connectable laptops enjoys while waiting for a train or sipping a latte. Whatis more, this service typically is not located in airports and books stores, but it covers large areas, so that you can have a high speed Internet connection at home, while waiting for a bus, or on a hiking trail. These public Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN) are popping up in rural areas of the country, where commercial efforts to provide broadband connections have largely been ignored, and in major cities, where hobbyists cobble together parts and mount them on tall buildings to provide whole neighborhood with broadband access.

MANs are not new; Telcos and companies have had MANs in place for private use for quite some time. However, these older implementations relied on older proprietary technologies and only provided exclusive access. These MANs were usually used to tie disparate buildings of a company together such that the resulting networks acted as one. Access was limited to wired ports in the buildings, and the wireless part of the network tended to be point to point, line of sight installations.

With the advent of the 802.11x standards, the importance of the wireless portion of a MAN has expanded to providing the direct node (PC or laptop) connection, eschewing the wired portion altogether. Whatis more, these standards-based technologies allow anyone to become a provider of broadband service. With a few hundred dollars of materiel and a broadband connection, anyone can setup a MAN that can cover several square miles, providing broadband access to anyone with a computer equipped with a compatible wireless NIC. That is pretty much what has been happening in communities around the nation.

In a recent story (Entrepreneur Sets Up Speedy Wireless Internet Access) featured on National Public Radio (NPR), an entrepreneur in Aspen, CO recently set up a wireless MAN using home-made equipment. The creator of the free Aspen WiFI access, Jim Soyber (the spelling of his name may not be accurate as no spelling was given) uses light bulbs to keep his equipment warm, and mounts his 40 repeaters atop homes and businesses around Aspen to gain coverage.

The Aspen effort is just the tip of the iceberg. There are established wireless MANs in Sydney Austrialia, Heilsinki Finland, and Portland Oregon (complete list). There are sites dedicated to providing the technical information needed to setup a wireless MAN of you very own, with what is probably the best place to start at an MIT Web site called Rooftop Media.

In another article in Infoworld describing the proletariat wireless access, Matt Westervelt, one of the originators of the movement, lays out his vision of what he calls a "Symbiotic grid" of wireless access points hosted by volunteers.

All is not well in the land of the wireless MAN, however. In an article called "Renegade WLANs: Parasitic or Free-Spirited Anarchistic?" by Ed Sutherland, the grassroots wireless access effort may be akin to HAM radio in its free-spirited pioneerism and homespun innovation, but commercial providers voice open concern. Mr. Sutherland says:

"Wireless giants such as Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner view the move to free wireless networking as possibly violating usage agreements. They also believe such sharing will degrade network performance and leave the persons volunteering their broadband connections open to lawsuits if anyone misuses the piggybacked services. While no lawsuits are currently being considered, backers of the free wireless networks see a test legal case as inevitable."

Indeed. In a recent summit held in Aspen, CO. many providers complained about the high cost of getting broadband access to end users. In an article published by ComputerWorld, called, iBroadband Seen as Cure for Economic Ills at Aspen Summit,i there seemed to be more infighting than solution making, leaving the end user without access. From the ComputerWorld article:

"The former Baby Bell telephone companies complain that the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 is deterring broadband deployment. The act, which required the regional Bells to open their networks to voice competition, is being wrongly applied to broadband, said Tom Tauke, senior vice president at New York-based Verizon Communications.

"Competitors use our facilities at rent-control rates, and do so without investing a dime of their money," said Tauke, speaking at the conference, which was sponsored by The Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington."

So, what does all this mean? For now, that depends on whether you happen to be in an area that has free wireless access points, or whether or not you are thinking of joining the effort to provide free access by creating an access point of your own. If you live in an area that has yet to be served by commercial broadband access, this could be a reasonable alternative. A neighborhood, for instance, could purchase a T1 for a few hundred dollars a month, set up a wireless MAN, and include the cost in common charges. By adhering to the 802.11b standard, anyone, including Mac users with Airport cards installed, could reap the benefits of broadband at greatly reduced cost.

The volks-access effortis biggest strength could be its undoing, and thatis the low cost of entry. There is a lot of money in the broadband market, and very little of it has been profit so far. Historical precedent shows that if do-it-yourself wireless networks get too popular, the corporate powers will try and put a stop to it. It remains to be seen if they can, but someone has to pay for the access, or the providers will not be able to operate.

On the other hand, this action by people with a few dollars and extra bandwidth could be just what the big providers need to get up off their collective rears and do what obviously can be done.