TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Advocates of Wi-Fi in Cities Learn Art of Politics

Advocates of Wi-Fi in Cities Learn Art of Politics

Marcus Didius Falco (
Thu, 19 Jan 2006 22:08:08 -0500

(johnmac) -- Dana Spiegel, quoted in the article, spoke to my Monroe
College Wireless Technology class, last Saturday. he is, to my
understanding, the Executive Director of NYC Wireless (
-- an organization that I recommend to everyone.)

From the New York Times --

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

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

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, 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

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

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

"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."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

John F. McMullen

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