While some free broadband wireless networks are designed to extend free Internet access to people who otherwise couldn't afford the service, others are building what amounts to a community intranet.
Not everyone is willing to wait for someone else to cut the desktop tether.
Loose coalitions of tech geeks, amateur radio hobbyists and social activists worldwide have begun to build free broadband wireless networks. Sit in a park or café near one of these networks with your laptop and modem, and you can access files on your home or office computer, or access the Web without a hardwired connection.
While some of these networks are designed to extend free Internet access to people who otherwise couldnt afford the service, others are building what amounts to a community intranet.
"Its not about Internet access," says Matt Westervelt, a system administrator and founder of SeattleWireless, the group piecing together a network in Seattle. "Its about building up a network, connecting people through their computers in the community."
The networks are based on the 802.11b wireless networking standard. Participants purchase access points, then create or buy antennas and place them on the roofs of their houses or apartment buildings and become nodes on a network that links members computers together. Many members with antennas already have high-speed data lines, such as DSL or cable modems, and they can share that Internet access for free with anyone who has an 802.11b modem and is within range of an access point.
Westervelt predicts a growing number of local businesses will raise antennas and join the network as a way to establish a presence among the other users of the network. A couple of coffee shops in Seattle are already part of SeattleWireless network, which so far has eight nodes.
As more people join the network, the community grows and gives more impetus for businesses, for example, to maintain sites on the community network for free. Instead of paying a recurring monthly fee for a Web site, members incur only the one-time cost of putting up an antenna and linking to the network.
Other businesses may want to add nodes on the network so workers can access the corporate network from home or nearby cafs or restaurants. The network doesnt have to hit the public Internet, and can use virtual private network technology to tunnel securely into the corporate intranet.
The independent way the networks grow, however, may be one of the drawbacks. "One thing were butting up against is its not particularly easy to hook up," Westervelt says. Making that process easier for Seattle residents, as well as groups around the country, is another one of SeattleWireless goals. "We want to make this as reproducible as possible," he says.
These volunteer projects seem to grow in fits and starts, yet the momentum in Seattle has spread quickly outside the city.
"Seattle is the pioneer in doing this in the world," says Hem Ramachandran, a technology manager of IT solutions company Marlabs and a founder of an Austin, Texas, group committed to building a free wireless network.
Ramachandrans main goal is to extend free Internet access, but he, too, is focused on building a community network. "The idea is to have an independent network. If the Internet backbone goes down, this will act as a network, which would still be up in an emergency," says Ramachandran, an amateur radio aficionado.
These groups run the risk of angering ISPs that might not like the fact that some of their network users are accessing the Internet without paying. So far, leaders of the free wireless groups believe that they are just a blip on the ISPs radar and not worth worrying about.
That may be true among the more open-minded ISPs. "If some people are experimenting with cool stuff, we dont have a problem," says Mike Apgar, president and CEO of Speakeasy Network, which offers static IP addresses and allows customers to serve as smaller ISPs.
John Drewry, 3Coms senior director of business development, says most ISPs arent happy to learn that customers are sharing connections for free, but the practice isnt expected to blossom to a threatening size. "The problem with grassroots LANs [local area networks] is that someone has to pay for that service, and the reliability and performance of the link will be limited because no one has the incentive to invest additional dollars," Drewry says.
That fact may slow the growth of the free networks and affect the networks quality, but it also preserves the market for customers that might be willing to pay for the assurance of quality service.
"I dont know that this represents a huge threat to existing or emerging service providers looking to charge people," Drewry says.
MobileStar Network is one well-known company using 802.11b in places such as Starbucks coffee shops to offer high-speed wireless Internet access to paying subscribers. The company has backup measures in place to ensure that customers receive high-quality service, and says that assurance will continue to attract customers.
However, some DSL and cable modem service providers may have reason to complain. Dana Spiegel, who runs a consulting business and worked with a Boston group that was unsuccessful in its efforts to build a wireless network, points out that high-speed data providers oversubscribe based on projections of how much bandwidth customers will use. An unexpected number of users on their networks could affect their business plans. "The network providers are concerned about maintaining the bandwidth they have," Spiegel says.