Advocates of Wi-FI in Cities Learn Art of Politics
By Glenn Fleishman
New York Times
Thursday, January 19, 2006
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 network.)
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
"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 cities.
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
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 Illinois.
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
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
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 NewburyOpen.net, 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 wireless."
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
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
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 company.
Community advocates want to use both these independent
networks and municipal broadband to carry new kinds of
locally focused services and data.
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
Mr. Spiegel said that the transition from hardware and
networks to the higher level of programs and politics was
inevitable as networks spread.
"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