Free wireless networking movement gathers speed

A grassroots effort to deploy free wireless networking access zones threatens to undermine the multibillion-dollar campaigns of wireless network vendors preparing to offer state-of-the-art 3G (third-generation) wireless services in major metropolitan areas.

This emerging free grid allows users to piggyback on wireless Ethernet networks because of a standard, 802.11b, that works on an unlicensed portion of the wireless Ethernet spectrum. At a performance of 11Mbps, it is five times faster than the best speeds promised by all the major wireless network operators for 3G services.

"The major goal is to build up the 802.11b infrastructure inside the city," said Matt Westervelt, one of the originators of what he likes to call a "symbiotic grid" based in Seattle, Washington. "If you have a home that is connected to the Internet, for example, I use your connection and you can use mine."

Such grids are underway in New York, San Francisco; Seattle; Aspen, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; British Columbia; and London. While some observers say the term "movement" may be too strong, others such as the former CTO at British Telecom Peter Cochrane call it a "parasitic" network.

In column titled, "Radio will make us all parasites," Cochrane wrote more than two years ago that "as one community after another powered up, the [parasitic] sub-net would grow across regions, and soon thousands would have their own intranet without the need for any formal network."

This wireless network grid could also prove useful in times of disaster especially in light of the role that wireless technology played in the terrorist attacks of September 11. Wireless Ethernet links, for instance, could form the basis of a community communications system that's widely available yet a difficult target because it lacks a single point of failure.

Tim Pozar, an active member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group (BAWUG), uses the term "neighborhood area networks," which he says addresses the issue of removing or reducing the "last mile costs" associated with wireless or Internet connections.

Under this example, a home user with a permanent connection to the Internet via a DSL line, for example, would deploy a wireless access point on a roof and allow neighbors and passersby to connect via their PC or server to the Internet for free. Pozar said that technology such as reverse firewalls could also allow individuals to charge wireless access point users a nominal fee to split the cost of the "last mile" connection.

As for the potential conflict between grid users and providers, Pozar said he doesn't believe that widespread use of 802.11b will impact 3G because 3G is a coherent standard backed by billions of dollars in telecommunications carrier funding as well as the coalitions among cellular manufacturers. "3G [also] has more coverage area," he said.

In contrast, Cochrane said, "G3 also has serious and growing competition from a variety of wireless LANs, ad-hoc, parasitic, and peer-to-peer networking," in a recently published article.

Market battles aside, once a more or less complete grid of access points is established, grid participants could connect to a LAN to access numerous services, including a free alternative to fee-based cellular voice networks via VoIP (voice over IP).

Other services envisioned include information distribution for city services, free e-mail for all citizens, and, for a budget-strapped city government, inexpensive access to Internet terminals in public places such as libraries.

More broadly, free metropolitan "wireless access could help to erase the digital divide," said Scott Kennedy, owner of the BitStar Café in Seattle, which gives its customers wireless access over 802.11b.

Like many other operators, AT&T Wireless Group Inc. is keeping track of these developments, and is "considering 802.11b wireless access as well, not in place of currently scheduled rollouts but as an adjunct," said an AT&T Wireless representative.

Also taking note are the so-called "aggregators" who can take these public access networks and connect them. They have designed software for mobile devices that can find any available wireless network and connect the user to it, identifying all the access points in range.

"It even would be able to say, 'Here is a list of the networks found' and indicate which are free and which charge a fee," said Phil Belanger, vice president of wireless business development at Wayport Inc., an Austin, Texas-based provider of 802.11b services at airports and hotels.

With the freedom that a wireless grid promises, users have a strong incentive to carry free metropolitan networks far beyond what the giant wireless providers may regard as a minor annoyance-into a full-fledged competitor to its own services. Users could make the grid "what we want it to be instead of what they want it to be," said Kennedy.

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