All Wired Up

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Plans to cover huge areas with wireless internet access are gathering pace. And, finds Sean Dodson, companies that stand to lose are taking the threat seriously.

Thursday March 3, 2005 The Guardian

Once the preserve of first-class business lounges, the mobile internet is fast becoming a reality. Last month, Southern Trains announced it was rolling out Wi-Fi access along its London to Brighton route. For about the cost of a bacon sandwich, commuters will soon be able enjoy internet access as they race across the Ouse viaduct. Not to be outdone, service station operator Moto said it was installing Wi-Fi hotspots at 43 of its motorway locations and you will even be able to check email at 35,000 feet: Boeing is installing Wi-Fi access points in its new fleet of long-haul aircraft.

Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, is the branding given to interoperability-tested products based on IEEE 802.11, an industry standard that allows data to be sent over the radio spectrum rather than through a cable or phone line. Now a standard feature on all but the cheapest laptops, the protocol is coming pre-packaged in a variety of electronic devices including mobile phones, palmtop computers and even the latest Nintendo games console.

Until now, only a patchy blanket of disparate wireless networks has allowed these devices to connect to the internet and it has been difficult for users to roam between those networks since most cover only small geographical areas.

But that is changing. Philadelphia is steaming ahead with an ambition to become the world's most wired - or unwired - city, with a $10m plan to bathe 135 square miles with wireless coverage - potentially accessible by 1.5m residents. Over the next 18 months, more than 4,000 wireless antennae will be attached to the city's lampposts, trans mitting free internet access into the city's parks and public places. But, more controversially, Philadelphia's residents and businesses will also be tempted with wireless broadband for about the cost of a dial-up connection. According to the mayor, John F Street, Philadelphia is "singularly obsessed" with bringing the benefits of high-speed internet access "anywhere, anytime, to anyone that needs it".

Cities as diverse as New York, Taipei, Calgary and Adelaide are competing to launch similar "muni nets". Smaller scale networks have been deployed on corporate and university campuses and, more recently, in large shopping areas, such as a 42-square block section of downtown St Louis, Missouri. Smaller US cities, such as Salem and Austin, offer city-wide wireless access, while in Europe, the genteel Dutch city of Leiden offers a foretaste of the wireless city.

The UK picture is more parochial, though no less passionate. A patchwork of smaller wireless networks, often funded by local councils, is beginning to blossom. Yesterday, Access to Broadband, a pressure group partially funded by the government, reported to the Department for Trade and Industry that there were at least 550 smaller scale wireless networks operating in towns and villages across the UK. Nearly 90% employ wireless networking. These tiny, cooperative projects are in remote corners, but what they have in common with Philadelphia is that they have been established in the wake of the market's failure to deliver affordable high-speed internet connections to everyone who needs it. The rural outposts going wireless are those that feel they are poorly served by BT.

There are also moves to furnish London with city-wide wireless networks. Lewisham council is building a wireless network in south London, while the closest Britain has to wireless Philadelphia is a three-mile ribbon in central Bristol.

What unites these groups is the belief that cheap wireless access has the power to even out the inequalities inherent in the network society. But not everyone is convinced by such egalitarianism. In Philadelphia, critics have argued that local government-run networks will result in poor service and be a waste of taxpayers' money. Far from being an anti-poverty weapon, say dissenters, municipal networks are more likely to be aimed at attracting hi-tech businesses. As Scott Wallsten wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week: "Does anyone really believe that impoverished families are going to run to the store and plunk down more than $500 on a computer just because they can suddenly save a few bucks a month on internet access?"

The mayor's office responded swiftly, saying its pilot projects had engaged with low-income groups, citing the People's Emergency Centre (PEC), a homeless shelter in beleaguered west Philly, as an indication of how wireless networks can reach the poorest. Three years ago, PEC created a small wireless network for the surrounding area (average annual family income below $20,000) and offered to share its leased internet line with local residents for $5 per month - roughly a quarter of the commercial rate.

The network -- which remains popular -- was supported by courses, whose successful students could buy a refurbished computer with a wireless card for $120.

So far, so good. But city hall soon ran into serious problems that could stifle the wireless dreams of municipalities across the world. US cable companies, which see citizen-funded networks as a threat to their commercial fiefdoms, backed a bill that effectively outlawed municipal wireless in the state of Pennsylvania. In December, the state passed a bill forbidding any municipality in the state from running an "information network". Only a last-minute deal with Verizon, the state's de facto monopoly provider of broadband, saved Philadelphia's vision. Verizon promised to allow the city's network, but at the expense of the rest of the state. At least 15 US states are considering similar telco-backed bills to ban municipal networks.

To Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer, municipal wireless is no mere luxury. Neff, a veteran public servant, sees municipal networks as a potential leveller in a city where 70% of state school children receive free school meals. "We have a vibrant downtown," she says, "but we need to make sure all our neighbourhoods can compete in the knowledge economy.

"We are not using taxpayers' dollars to build the network," she adds. "We will finance it through taxable bonds or bank financing." Moreover, Neff believes the network will be cost neutral, meaning that the start-up costs will be offset by a reduction in the cost of civic services. "We need outdoor access for our field operations, whether that's building inspectors, health and social workers or public safety. Our inspectors need access to engineering diagrams in the field if there's a water main break," she explains. "DSL or cable doesn't meet our needs."

Chris Clark, chief executive for BT Wireless Broadband, said the UK's biggest broadband supplier would not be taking the same approach as Verizon. "The community wireless projects, which started in an environment of concern about rural service, are evolving into providing all sorts of innovative services," he says. "It would be a pity to see such innovation stifled. More recently, a number of metropolitan wireless projects have been in the pipeline. BT is fully supportive of these initiatives."

While such sentiments will be welcomed by broadband campaigners, some wish to go further and establish truly free wireless networks. If municipal wireless represents a leveller approach to the network society, then the "free networkers" represents its diggers. The idea of a free, wireless network to "act as a direct counter strategy to top-down, telecom-provided monopoly networking", was born in Southwark nearly five years ago.

Julian Priest, then a web designer, posited the idea that the wireless protocol could be used on a city-wide scale. His company wanted to share its spare internet bandwidth with Backspace, a community of digital artists working over the road. However, it is illegal to stretch an overhead cable across a street. Priest and James Stevens, of Backspace, solved the problem by connecting the buildings with wireless technology. The realisation that the network could be extended followed quickly.

The pair's idea to float a "data cloud" over London inspired a generation of free networkers to take to the roofs armed with antenna. Ad hoc free networks have since been established across the world, as far away as Indonesia, Nepal and Tanzania. Priest is lobbying Ofcom - the industry regulator -- to establish a "spectrum commons" that would set aside certain frequency bands for public use. 802.11 has grown out of the thin sliver of the spectrum given to public use, "but it has to share that space with everything else," says Priest. "It's become an incredibly noisy and chaotic channel and we need more space."

Free networkers, like Priest, believe that the transit of data through the air should be free. Not just in terms of cost but in terms of content. "People need to take responsibility for their own network," says Pete Gomes, of Wireless London, a pressure group established in January to promote free networks in the capital.

"Because of the scale of London, the possibility of creating a unified wireless system from grass roots activity is complex. We are in a position where we are embedding infrastructure for the future and if London doesn't realise that, we could easily be left behind."


Wireless Philadelphia

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Wireless London

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