Advocates of citywide Wi-Fi learn art of politics

Although wireless Internet isn't completely free and accessible to all, Wi-Fi advocates' impact has never been higher. Municipal-broadband and wireless-projects map

The idea of building citywide wireless networks from the community level was suspiciously simple back in 2000, though 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 The Personal Telco Project, 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 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, though some still provide technical help to business owners and nonprofit groups in creating free Wi-Fi hot spots.

"The problems that were hard in 2001 were technical ones," 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 consulting firm Civitium, says that movement was the impetus for government-run citywide wireless-Internet plans. 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," 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 community groups.

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 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

Featured Video