Free the Wireless Net!

Do-it-yourselfers are banding together to create untethered networks that share broadband connections. Initiatives in London, Seattle and Boston use inexpensive components to fight the high cost of Internet access.

Do-it-yourselfers are banding together to create untethered networks that share broadband connections. Initiatives in London, Seattle and Boston use inexpensive components to fight the high cost of Internet access.

Five years ago, do-it-yourself activist James Stevens rigged up a wireless network that let his London neighbors share the high bandwidth Internet connection he’d installed.

These days, Stevens has far more ambitious plans: He wants to wirelessly network all of London by using relatively cheap, off-the-shelf parts. Stevens’ project is one of several regional, free-wireless initiatives trying to combat the high cost of Internet access.

With the help of dozens of volunteers, Stevens is hoping to create a city-wide wireless network, built and maintained by the users themselves.

Unlike the commercial wireless networks, Stevens’ Consume the Net network will offer free access to anyone with a computer and a US$100 wireless networking card.

“Broadband is prohibitively expensive,” Stevens said. “A reasonable level of connectivity is absent. Technology gives us the opportunity to do it ourselves.”

The network will use wireless cards based on the 802.11 ethernet standard and manufactured by vendors such as Lucent and Apple. Networked computers will communicate over the unlicensed 2.4 GHz range of the spectrum, the same frequency used by cordless phones and Bluetooth devices.

Data between computers can be transmitted at a rate of up to 8 Mbps. Access to the Internet will be limited by the speed of the primary broadband, cable modem, or DSL connection, which is often significantly slower.

Computers will have to be within 45 meters (148 feet) of the closest broadband connection, but the group is also experimenting with booster antennas to extend coverage to between 1 and 4 kilometers.

Stevens hopes that enough volunteers with broadband connections will invest about $1,000 to hook up their Net feeds to wireless base stations and booster antennas so that the project can stretch across the entire city.

So far, the group has attracted about a dozen committed members, and more than 180 people have subscribed to the group’s mailing list.

Stevens said the first three nodes of the network will be up and running sometime this week. The nodes will cover about a square mile of East London, which, while one of the poorest parts of the city, is becoming a hotbed for new-media business.

Stevens, a firm believer in cooperative action, said Consume isn’t just about sharing broadband costs, but is also an attempt to bring Net access to those who can’t afford it.

“We’ll put up this data cloud and anyone in the vicinity can tune in,” he said.

Stevens has no plans to commercialize the project. “There will be plenty of spin-off opportunities later on. This is the new way of the Net — user constructed networks,” he said. “We’re demonstrating the potential without outside commercial pressure.”

Stevens has been active in cooperative projects for years. He also founded Backspace, an arts community that provided free Net access to the homeless and others from a converted warehouse in South London.

“It’s a great idea,” said Steve Tyler, a director of Mase Integration and Communications, which is networking hundreds of buildings for Newham Borough Council, one of London’s local authorities, using essentially the same equipment.

Tyler cautioned, however, that because the network operates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz range, there could be interference from other devices that use the same frequency.

“It’s not a problem yet,” he said. “But it will probably become a problem in a year or two. If someone else puts up their own antenna and it interferes, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Steven’s group also has to grapple with a number of other obstacles. The nodes of the network require specific software to connect; the network is purely line-of-sight and won’t penetrate trees and houses; and there could be interference problems with signals bouncing off buildings.

On the plus side, the group has access to a sophisticated network-mapping tool called Web Stalker, which was commissioned for the troubled Millennium Dome project. Web Stalker will generate a 3-D map of the network to help users find the nearest access point.

Stevens is not alone in his desire to create community-run wireless networks. Similar efforts are underway in Seattle, Boston and San Francisco.

In Seattle, Matt Westervelt is trying to coordinate a similar 802.11-standard wireless network in the city’s residential Capitol Hill district.

The plan is to allow free wireless access to Net-connected computers at home, Westervelt said. He had been a subscriber to Metricom’s Ricochet service, but tired of the monthly charges.

“We’re building our own infrastructure,” said Westervelt, a systems administrator for Real Networks. “You shouldn’t have to pay a monthly fee to be on the airwaves. You should be able to do this for free.”

Like Stevens, Westervelt has experience jerry-rigging guerrilla networks. A few years ago he shared a T1 line with his neighbors in Seattle’s Pioneer Square by stringing Ethernet cables through windows and across alleyways.

Westervelt and his colleagues have been running about half a dozen independent wireless nodes from apartments in the area since June, but face the problem of hooking them up into one seamless network.

He said they need more volunteers to fill in the gaps or someone on a neighboring hill whom they can bounce signals off of. The group also is toying with the idea of charging users who don’t contribute to the network by running a node.

Seattle Wireless recently linked up with Xlan, a project started by Greg Daly, an engineering student at the University of Washington who is designing homemade booster antennae for 802.11 networks.

Daly said his designs will allow broadband-connected users to share their connections with others up to 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) away by setting up inexpensive base stations hooked to a booster antenna.

“Right now a lot of people have cable or DSL connections, but people down the street don’t because of distances,” he said. “We hope to help eliminate that.”

Daly has designs for a 4-kilometer directional antenna that costs about $20, and a 20-kilometer directional antenna based on a used satellite dish. He expects to publish detailed plans for the antennae on his site within a month.

In Boston and surrounding areas, Guerrilla Net members are creating a decentralized, wireless alternative to the Internet.

“The purpose is to ensure that the flow of information is not obstructed, captured, analyzed, modified, or logged,” said Brian Oblivion, a member of computer security site L0pht Industries.

“This requires a networking fabric which lies outside of governments, commercial Internet service providers, telecommunications companies, and dubious Internet regulatory committees,” he wrote in an email.

Oblivion said that while the project is centered in Boston, it has “hundreds” of interested parties worldwide, particularly in the United States and Europe. If there are enough people in a particular location, they set up a “cell,” Oblivion said.

Author: Leander Kahney

News Service: Wired News


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