Surf Globally, Network Locally

The story of networking is the story of large corporations. Telephony (both land-line- based and cellular) and the Internet require a heavy, expensive infrastructure, the kind that only big business can afford to implement and maintain. Problem is, these costs get transferred to the consumer. Every time your phone bill comes along, you're still footing the bill for PBX boxes and cabling that was paid off decades ago. Even service and maintenance costs can only account for a fraction of the actual amount you and I pay for our telephone, our cable TV and our Internet.

What really sucks is that none of us have a choice. We can't lay our own phone lines or build our own cellular towers.

But what if things didn't have to be this way?

Some people think it doesn't. In San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, everyday nerds are putting together wireless local area networks (or WLANs) using affordable technology. There are sections of these cities where anybody with a laptop can walk around with a permanent, high-speed Internet connection. And there are more cities on the way.

The setup is simple and inexpensive. One person buys a 802.11b access point for about $50. They build a repeater antenna out of a Pringles can for $6.50 (plans available at http://www.oreillynet.com/cs/weblog/view/wlg/448). They put the antenna on their roof. Boom! Everyone within a five-mile area or so who has direct line-of-sight of that person's house can use the access point. Build a bunch of these, and you've got a WLAN. If one system on the WLAN has a high-speed Internet connection, everybody in the WLAN can surf the web at high speeds. And since the 802.11b standard is 10 times faster than cable or DSL, you can even send real-time high quality audio and video over the connection.

Think "videophone." Start drooling.

WLANs are urban intranets where citizens can trade files, chat, talk about nightlife, fall in love or check real-time traffic reports. A WLAN is a cooperative effort between people working together for a common interest, which is all too rare these days.

This is the sort of thing that city governments should be falling all over themselves to implement. After all, the cost is almost negligible; it would cost about $5,000 to blanket a city of a million people with wireless coverage, which is less than most cities spend annually on coffee creamer for council meetings.

And a WLAN has benefits beyond badass wireless Unreal tournament action; one of the greatest impediments to Internet access by schools and libraries is the cost of the networking hardware, which can be almost completely eliminated by a WLAN at almost no cost to the taxpayer. Emergency workers could have high-speed access to data -- like medical records, for example -- which can save lives.

You get the idea.

But very few cities are officially dipping their toes into the WLAN pool. This seems mainly due to telcos like AT&T and Sprint bitching and moaning about the whole affair, since WLANs allow people to network without using telco resources.

Not that anybody has any sympathy for telephone companies; I think most Americans would like to storm their corporate offices with torches and drag the motherfuckers out screaming. But politicians are whores, and telcos have a lot of money to throw around.

Apparently the big thing now is for telcos to attack users who allow others to use their paid-for bandwidth, on the grounds that it violates service agreements. There are a lot of possible solutions to this that are being discussed by WLAN enthusiasts and activists; one of them is to set up a nonprofit Internet service provider that charges wireless users nominal fees in return for high-speed Internet access. This could be easily implemented by a city or county utilizing existing government-owned lines at no cost to the taxpayers ... if one could convince the city or county to do so.

So for now, it's up to us. There are some good resources for community WLAN building on the Internet, like www.personaltelco.net or www.freenetworks.org, which offer tutorials, FAQs and status updates of existing community projects for those who want to start their own.

Petition your city council. Talk to other people who might have an interest in starting a community WLAN. Put something up on the bulletin board at work. Even if information can't always be free, access to it should be. It's time to take it into our own hands.

Joshua Ellis, raconteur and deranged futurist, has a doctorate in divinity from the Universal Life Church. He can be contacted at jzellis@yahoo.com or on the web at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/paranoid_annex, the discussion group for this column. If anybody in Las Vegas is interested in starting a community WLAN, head on over to
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/paranoid_annex/ and talk about it on the All Tomorrow's Parties mailing list.

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