[Cu-wireless] San Francisco Bay Guardian: Broadband to the people!

David Young dyoung at ojctech.com
Wed Jun 12 16:28:26 CDT 2002


Broadband to the people!
Wireless community networks challenge corporate control of Internet access.

By Annalee Newitz

IT ALL STARTED with a can of Safeway-brand beef ravioli. Jim Meehan,
a San Francisco network engineer, had been reading on Slashdot
(www.slashdot.org), the geek news site of record, about how to build
a homemade antenna for his computer. The heart of the contraption was
an ordinary metal can. "They recommended using Malley's beef stew for
the can, but the ravioli was cheaper," Meehan confesses. After some
tinkering and tests, Meehan discovered his home-brewed antenna was
far from ordinary: indeed, it's possible Meehan's humble ravioli can,
combined with the know-how of a few hundred community-minded geeks,
could dramatically reduce the cost of high-speed Internet access for
everyone in San Francisco. In some cases, access might even become free.

Meehan's antenna isn't for listening to the radio - it's for getting
online. Using 802.11b, an unlicensed radio spectrum, this antenna allows
a computer to connect to the Internet (or any other computer network),
much in the way a cell phone connects to the phone system. Since 802.11b
is an unlicensed spectrum, Meehan didn't have to pay any fees to the
Federal Communications Commission before he took a stroll down to Baker
Beach, hooked up his antenna to a laptop, and pointing it at the antenna
on his roof, used his home Internet connection to surf the Web from a
mile and a half away. Later he went to the top of a hill in San Bruno,
five miles from his house, and repeated the experiment. It worked.

And that's not good news for companies like AT&T. Because Meehan isn't
the only one who can surf the Web with a tin-can antenna: in fact, anyone
with an unobstructed view of Meehan's house can point one of these cheap
devices at it and share his high-speed Internet access - for free. If
the practice spreads - and Meehan hopes it will - why would anyone want
to pay for expensive Internet service from companies like AT&T?

That is exactly what AT&T is afraid you'll ask, and it's why the company
and others like it have taken steps to block their customers from
setting up publicly accessible wireless networks like Meehan's. Since,
under AT&T's franchise agreement with the city of San Francisco, the
corporation will soon own most of the fiber-optic cable that provides
speedy Internet service to the city, AT&T's policies could spell doom
for the city's burgeoning wireless community networks.

Or, if city officials intervene, the nonprofit, grassroots wireless
networks could spell doom for AT&T's monopoly.

After writing about his antenna on Slashdot, Meehan found himself becoming
a culture hero of sorts. He began to get e-mails from other people who
had been doing their own experiments with 802.11b networks, also known
as Wi-Fi. Many had fairly large antennae and powerful "wireless access
points," the hardware required to turn a wired Internet connection into
a wireless one. "I'm in South of Market," a typical e-mail reads. "I
have line of sight to your house and to two of my friends who also have
access points."

What if all these dispersed geeks with their access points and antennae
got together and created a huge, citywide wireless network? Ordinary
people could go online from cafe's and street corners. Schools that
couldn't afford to lay thousands of feet of expensive broadband
cable could provide cheap wireless Internet access in all of their
classrooms. So could nonprofit organizations. Libraries could offer
wireless access to people in low-income neighborhoods. For Meehan, the
idea seems like a neat tech project - and for many other people who've
gotten involved, the idea sounds like social justice.

To bring San Francisco into the wireless age, Meehan started a mailing
list last month called San Francisco Wireless Broadband (SFWBB), a group
for people who want to plan a community wireless network. One member
is already creating a topographical map online so SFWBB can figure
out how to deal with mountains and high buildings that cut off 802.11b
signals. And Jamie Zawinksi, geek bad-boy owner of the DNA Lounge, has
pledged his rooftop antenna to the cause, if SFWBB can figure out a way
to keep users from sucking up all his bandwidth.

But SFWBB is just the thin end of the wedge. Wireless community groups
like the Bay Area Wireless User Group (BAWUG) and S.F. Wireless have
been spawning similar projects for the past couple of years. Members of
S.F. Wireless have helped residents of the Inner Sunset neighborhood
set up what are called "hot spots," small areas of wireless Internet
coverage around their homes or businesses. If you hook up an antenna
to your laptop and take a cruise around the neighborhood between 9th
Avenue and Irving, you'll pick up dozens of publicly accessible wireless
networks - including my own. Surf and Sip, a San Francisco business,
has also been installing hot spots in cafe's across the country where
users pay a small fee to gain wireless access.

In New York a wireless community group has turned several parks into
free hot spots for the public. And in Seattle similar groups are planning
a citywide wireless network. According to a survey conducted by Cahners
In-Stat Group, this year Americans have already spent $2.4 billion setting
up Wi-Fi. Why isn't San Francisco, one of the most computer-savvy cities
in the world, taking advantage of a technology so many of its citizens
already have?  The robber barons of broadband

Although the dot-com boom brought with it endless stories about how
the Internet would be a great democratic tool, bringing everyone into
electronic town halls, the reality is that getting online costs money. The
cost of computers has come down dramatically, but to get decent dial-up
Internet access you'll probably find yourself paying about $25 a month
for a services like Earthlink and AOL. The formerly free Internet has
become big business. Nielsen NetRatings estimates there are 165,745,689
people with Internet access in the United States alone. Multiply that
number by $25 a month, and you get an industry that's raking in almost
$50 billion a year on access charges alone.

These days dial-up services - where you use your telephone line to go
on the Net - are being replaced by broadband, a far more expensive
way to get online. There's a simple reason why people are switching
to broadband. Dial-up modems are just not fast enough to allow you to
download songs, look at pictures, and watch movies online.

Sometimes called "high-speed Internet," broadband refers to services like
cable modems, DSL, and T1. While a dial-up delivers 56,000 bits of data
a second, a typical cable broadband line delivers roughly 1 million bits
a second, making it about 20 times faster than a dial-up. A 56KB modem,
for instance, might take three hours to download one Metallica song. A
broadband connection lets you download that song in less than 10 minutes.

Broadband is delivered through the same kinds of cables that bring you
cable television, so it's also quite convenient for people who don't
want to unplug their phones every time they go online.

According to Neilsen NetRatings, there are currently 1,110,000 broadband
users in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a huge number for a single
region - the area is ranked fourth in the nation for broadband use -
and customers are paying anywhere from $50 to $100 each month to their
broadband providers. Those costs don't include installation fees,
which can go upward of $300. Clearly, the broadband industry - led by
corporations like AT&T and Verizon - is worth billions of dollars. And
the broadband robber barons always want more.

One obvious way to secure more customers is to be the only broadband
business in town with access to a network of wires that can carry data
at high speeds. The most popular type of wire for this is called fiber
optic. Made of hundreds of glass fibers, a fiber optic cable can carry
digital data at blistering speeds. Fiber optic is also highly versatile:
the same wire might be bringing you cable television data, Internet data,
and telephone calls all at the same time. Not surprisingly, companies like
AT&T that want to corner the communications market are very interested
in fiber optics (DSL companies, on the other hand, use already-existing
phone lines). If broadband providers can buy fiber optic networks, they
can control the hardware that brings you everything from Six Feet Under
on HBO to phone calls from your boyfriend.

In San Francisco this is the exact situation broadband customers are
facing. Broadband provider AT&T has a franchise deal with the city that
grants the company total control over the city's fiber optic network -
all AT&T has to do is lay the cables. To grasp what this means, you
might imagine that cables are like pipes. What San Francisco is saying
is that if AT&T lays a bunch of pipe, it also has the power to control
everything that goes through the pipes. So every time you flush your
toilet, you pay AT&T for the privilege of using its pipes to whisk your
shit out to the sewage plant. And even though most people use only a
fraction of the space available in its broadband "pipes" - that is,
the available bandwidth - AT&T doesn't want you to share that extra
space with anyone who isn't a paying customer of AT&T.

People like Meehan who are part of wireless community groups want to
share the pipes. And that's what pisses off AT&T. Despite the fact that
fiber optic cables can technically deliver enough bandwidth to fuel
fairly huge wireless networks without degrading the quality of service,
the company has specific rules in its service agreements banning customers
from setting up networks like the ones Meehan has in mind. If the company
gets control of all of the high-speed cable access in the city - and the
city allows that ban on sharing bandwidth to stand - Meehan's dream will
be a lot harder to realize.

Wireless community groups aren't arguing that people shouldn't have to
pay the company that is giving them broadband. Nor are they trying to
resell broadband access to other people. They just want to share some
of the broadband they've paid for - in the same way you might give your
neighbor a glass of water out of the pipes you've paid to use, or let
a friend use your toilet without paying for every flush.  Franchise woes

There is a confusing disconnect between wireless community groups and
the city of San Francisco. Despite the efforts of BAWUG founding member
Tim Pozar, who has some very good ideas about how the city might benefit
from its own wireless network, it's as if the city's Telecommunications
Commission and groups like SFWBB are on different planets.

The existence of community Wi-Fi could be a serious challenge to the
city's franchise deal with AT&T - a challenge that comes at a fairly
opportune moment. The City Attorney's Office and the Department of
Information and Telecommunications (DTIS) are currently investigating
whether San Francisco's multimillion-dollar franchise deal with AT&T
should be renegotiated based on several questionable moves made by the
company over the last several months (see "Poor Reception," 5/15/02).

But discussion of the ban on wireless networking isn't even on the
city's radar.

In 1999 San Francisco made a deal with AT&T: the corporate giant would
provide the city with a brand-new fiber optic cable network, and in
return AT&T would become the city's main provider of cable television,
as well as high-speed Internet. But Sup. Jake McGoldrick aide Jerry
Threet says AT&T is already a year and a half behind on laying the fiber
optic network. To make matters worse, AT&T subsidiary AT&T Broadband
has announced it is taking the first steps toward merging with fellow
broadband provider ComCast - meaning the franchise would suddenly be
owned by another company. And the language of the city's deal says the
franchise can't be transferred.

AT&T representative Andrew Johnson says the ComCast deal shouldn't
affect the AT&T franchise with San Francisco. His company contends that
the franchise is actually owned by Television Signal Corporation, which
is in turn owned by AT&T, and that TSC is simply one of the assets that
AT&T will bring to the ComCast deal. "The franchise language does not
require municipal review of this change of control," Johnson says.

Members of several city departments aren't so sure this claim holds
water. Deputy city attorney Julia Friedlander argues that the ComCast
deal is indeed a transfer of ownership. "This is a hotly disputed issue,"
she says.

Making matters more complicated is a controversial FCC ruling that came
down in March. According to Denise Brady, deputy director at the DTIS,
"the FCC has classified cable modem as an information service, not as
a cable or telecom service. This greatly confuses issues about which
regulations and laws will apply [to Internet broadband]. If indeed cable
modems are information services, they are no longer covered under our
franchise agreement with AT&T."

In fact, if the FCC ruling survives several suits challenging it at
the state level, Brady worries it will mean an end to local and federal
regulation of the Internet broadband industry. That could leave the city
no legal ability to challenge unfair corporate regulations governing
broadband Internet use.  Wireless geeks to the rescue

If the corporate monopolies can be kept from controlling broadband,
the potential benefits are huge.

BAWUG's Pozar runs a nonprofit organization called Bay Area Regional
Wireless Network, whose funding has so far come out of his own pockets
and those of a few friends. A longtime media activist and microwave
engineer who has in the past set up community radio stations and local
Internet service providers, Pozar now wants to bring wireless access to
Bay Area citizens and their public safety departments.

Using powerful antennae and experimental equipment partly of his own
design, Pozar proposes to create a high-speed wireless "backbone" that
would deliver signals from mountaintop to mountaintop and then down into
the cities below. "Because I've worked in broadcasting for so long, I have
a lot of friends who have mountaintops or access to them," Pozar says.

So far, the experiment looks like it could work. Pozar's group has
already established a wireless link between Hayward and Sign Hill, the
hill in San Bruno that boasts the South San Francisco sign. With some
fine tuning and a willing broadband provider, this link might in time
provide coverage to people in the surrounding areas.

More important, Pozar wants to provide cities with wireless broadband for
public safety. Currently he's talking with the county of San Mateo about
offering the service to the police and fire departments. This would be
invaluable because right now emergency services don't have any access
to high-speed data. Safety workers in the field can't download pictures
or maps. With Pozar's wireless system in place, firefighters could
be downloading real-time aerial images of the fire they're fighting,
allowing them to strategize more quickly about the best way to put
it out. Police could download photos of suspects or other information
they need within seconds. "We want to work closely with local emergency
departments and find out what their exact needs are so we can experiment
and put together the best possible wireless system for them," Pozar says.

Pozar has even more radical ideas about what he could do for the city of
San Francisco. He wants to create a San Francisco wireless network, kind
of like a mini-Internet that serves only city residents. "This wouldn't
be about connecting to the Internet, but to each other as a community,"
he says. Using wireless, San Francisco residents could set up their
computers to share resources like printers and hard-drive space. They
could also use the network for making local phone calls. "The network
would let you circumvent the telephone company," Pozar adds. People could
also have Web sites on the network and set up local file-sharing systems
like Napster so they could share their band's new music with everyone
in San Francisco who cared to download it. Pozar is careful to explain
that this wouldn't be about stealing bandwidth from Internet broadband
providers. "The Internet costs money," he says. "You'd get access to
the local San Francisco network for free. But to go on the Internet,
I could imagine setting up a co-op where you'd pay into a kitty and
share costs with several people for Internet broadband access."

If San Francisco were to work with community wireless groups to set up
such a network, it would be the first municipal wireless network of its
kind. And it wouldn't be a surprising development, since San Francisco
is one of the most wired cities in the country - and one of the most

But as long as the city isn't able to regulate Internet broadband,
it's unlikely that Pozar's vision will ever come to pass. If indeed
the city franchise with AT&T includes Internet broadband, the city
needs to renegotiate that franchise so that broadband customers can set
up community wireless networks. If the FCC ruling holds, and Internet
broadband goes unregulated, then it's up to lawmakers to challenge the FCC
so that cities can provide their citizens and public safety departments
with the low-cost, high-speed access they need and deserve.

Already there are broadband providers like Seattle's Speakeasy.net
that allow their DSL customers to set up wireless networks. Speakeasy's
philosophy is that broadband customers should be allowed to do what they
like with services they pay for. "We're not here to police our customers,"
Speakeasy CEO Mike Apgar says. "We want our customers to explore what's
possible with broadband, and we've never had any trouble at all with
wireless customers. Some use a lot of bandwidth, but our business model
accounts for people doing that."

Meanwhile, wireless community groups like Seattle Wireless and New York
Wireless - as well as Sonoma County's NoCat - are busily setting up free,
publicly accessible wireless networks in their local areas. No matter
what AT&T does, the push for community wireless isn't going away.

Perhaps the greatest weapon the wireless groups have, which AT&T doesn't,
is their commitment to community. "I'm not hoping to get any money out
of my project," Pozar says. "We're a nonprofit. I just want to do good
work. This grows out of my work with community radio stations. Back then,
I founded those stations to create a better world through democratic
communication. And that's what I'm trying to do now."

E-mail Annalee Newitz at annalee at techsploitation.com.

David Young             OJC Technologies
dyoung at onthejob.net     Engineering from the Right Brain
                        Urbana, IL * (217) 278-3933

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