[CUWiN] Article: SoCalFreeNet.org believes free Wi-Fi means greater access for everyone

Lee Barken barken at rohan.sdsu.edu
Thu Mar 17 22:13:56 CST 2005

  Just wanted to share an article from the North Park Times about 
community wireless activities down in San Diego... we don't have an online
link to the article, but the author provided this copy and permission to
share.  It's a good read about SoCalFreeNet and our activities.  BTW-
We're doing a deployment in National City this Saturday (local rec center,
details here: www.socalfreenet.org/eltoyon)... if you happen to be around
and you'd like to lend a hand, drop us a note... :-)

President, SoCalFreeNet.org


Nonprofit introducing neighborhoods to easy wireless Internet service
SoCalFreeNet believes free Wi-Fi means greater access for everyone

By Jennifer McEntee

North Park News, April 2005

Jay Porter, a North Park businessman and Golden Hill resident, gets free 
wireless Internet service. And because he allowed special Wi-Fi 
equipment to be installed at his home, so do his neighbors.

Porter is among residents taking advantage of a new grassroots program 
intended to provide free wireless networks to the greater public. 
Implemented by the nonprofit SoCalFreeNet.org, the idea is to make the 
Internet a resource for everyone, regardless of income.

"What they do is so good for the community," says Porter, who had a 
wireless network node implemented at his house. "It's so neat that the 
whole neighborhood can be a part of this."

Participating neighborhoods so far include Golden Hill, Sherman Heights, 
Normal Heights, Little Italy and most recently, Barrio Logan. Porter and 
SoCalFreeNet volunteers hope to drum up interest in other surrounding 
neighborhoods, including North Park.

The genesis

The program was started by volunteers from the San Diego Wireless Users 
Group, who wanted to put their skills to practical use.

Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, is a wireless networking technology 
that allows multiple computers to share a single Internet connection 
over short distances. The reach of an antenna depends on signal 
impediments, from trees and buildings to weather.

The first SoCalFreeNet wireless network node was set up in Little Italy. 
It gained enough attention to attract the interest of Bart Ziegler, 
landlord of the pink apartment complex at 21st and Broadway in Golden 
Hill. He asked the users group if his building would be a suitable site 
for the next node.

Drew MacCullough, a resident of the Pink Palace, heard that the 
SoCalFreeNet volunteers would be in the building setting up the Wi-Fi 
network. MacCullough, who had a computer but no Internet connection, was 
intrigued. He got to know the volunteers as they set up his computer and 
those of his neighbors. Before he knew it, he was acting as a liaison 
between the free net group and his neighbors, both in his building and 
in the surrounding community.

"For me personally, it was a really great balance between a technical 
challenge, the real sort of geek part of it, which is a lot of fun, and 
it's a really great chance to help people," says MacCullough. "It does 
sound kind of corny, but it is about bridging the digital divide."

MacCullough says the idea is to make the Internet universally ubiquitous.

"This particular area is a pretty mixed socioeconomic area at this 
point. It used to be predominantly affordable housing, low-income, but 
it's come up quite a bit," he says. "If you look at an area like Normal 
Heights, or North Park, or City Heights. Any one of those areas may have 
well-off tenants, but down the street, not everyone in the area is.

"We don't know who we're helping out a lot of times. We're happy to put 
out the possibility."

SoCalFreeNet works with organizations including the San Diego Futures 
Foundation to obtain refurbished computers for those in need.

The set-up

Each Wi-Fi network requires one major outlay of equipment that serves as 
the hub for smaller setups throughout the building or neighborhood.

For Porter, though his Internet service is free, his role as a hub was 
not. The necessary equipment to set up the wireless node cost him about 
$600. "I figure I probably broke even by now," he says.

Property owners with a node pay the recurring costs for the Internet 
access, which must be a sharable network such as those offered by 
DSLExtreme, Speakeasy or Cox Business Services.

Neighbors within the available Wi-Fi area get the benefit of the network 
for free. They only need to have a computer that is already 
Internet-enabled, as most new laptops are, or buy the necessary 
equipment at any electronics retailer. SoCalFreeNet makes an easy-setup 
kit available for $90, at cost, at Influx coffee shop on Broadway in 
Golden Hill.

Users aren't left to go it alone. Volunteers for SoCalFreeNet answer 
questions by e-mail, and hold educational sessions on the second 
Saturday of each month at Influx. The sessions typically run from 9 a.m. 
to 11 a.m.

The volunteers often make house calls to help users set up their service 
or troubleshoot problems.

In use

David Moore is among the neighbors taking advantage of the six Wi-Fi 
nodes available in Golden Hill. He read about the program several months 
ago and attended an install day at Influx. Now, instead of paying $40 a 
month to a large provider for Internet access, he gets it for free.

As a postal carrier and artist, Moore uses his computer mostly for news 
headlines, e-mail and looking up art exhibitions. The Wi-Fi access has 
proven especially useful for downloading large images of art, he says.

"With MSN, it would take 15 minutes to download a file," Moore says. 
"With this, it's almost instantaneous."

MacCullough says the networks are set up to handle normal Internet 
surfing, while larger downloads put users further down in the queue. 
Security measures including firewalls and anti-virus software are used 
to protect the network, though individual users are encouraged to take 
their own precautions as well.

Plans for expansion

As the organization grows from a small group of weekend hobbyists to a 
large association of active volunteers, SoCalFreeNet is trying to 
formalize how it establishes Wi-Fi sites.

While the organization has previously set up sites on request, they 
intend to begin seeking out sites where free Internet access might be 
put to good use, MacCullough says.

Porter has talked to the SoCalFreeNet volunteers about eventually 
implementing a node at his new restaurant, the Linkery in North Park. 
SoCalFreeNet also has plans to set up a computer lab in a National City 
community center.

While SoCalFreeNet didn't invent Wi-Fi access, its approach to making it 
more widely available has gained acclaim. The group regularly updates 
its installation progress on its Web site, www.socalfreenet.org, 
attracting hits and page links from as far away as the Republic of 
Estonia, which borders Russia.

Says MacCullough: "We like to say, 'We're big in Estonia.'"

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