Footing the Bill for Free Wi-Fi

When a Portland (Ore.) TV station, Channel 6, retired its satellite van recently, Nigel Ballard snatched it up on the cheap. Ballard runs the Joejava Wireless Consultancy, and he installs wireless networks for hotels. He's also one of a dozen volunteers who run a free wireless network that locals can use to connect to the Web at broadband speeds. He figured that his volunteer group, called Personal Telco, could use the van to provide free Net access at outdoor events, though until the vehicle is repainted, most curiosity seekers rush over mainly to see if they can get on TV.

Giving the van a makeover is the least of Personal Telco's worries, however. Primarily, it needs funds to support its existing 41 Wi-Fi "hot spots," each of which provides free Web access to anyone with a computer and a wireless card within 300 feet of it -- at 50 times the speed of a dial-up connection.

Sometimes, Personal Telco volunteers manage to pay only $50 a month for a DSL (digital subscriber line) connection from a phone company to power a "hot spot" that hundreds of Web surfers may use. When the provider prohibits sharing, however, Personal Telco has to search for local businesses that would agree to share their $850-a-month commercial T-1 lines.

CRACKING DOWN. Personal Telco is among the hundreds of groups that sprang up over the past two years with the idea of providing free broadband access to all comers via wireless hookups -- a logical elaboration of the original egalitarian Web ideal. Today, observers estimate, tens of thousands of Web surfers tap into tiny Wi-Fi hubs around the world to do their Web work fast and free -- many of them because they can't afford the $50 or so per month that broadband access now costs individuals. (In Oregon, with the highest unemployment rate in the country at 7.3%, commercial broadband access costs several hundred dollars a month.)

Problem is, these free hubs nearly always connect to the networks of commercial broadband providers, such as cable operators, who don't appreciate the idea of seeing systems they pay plenty to provide being used at no charge. With providers cracking down on freeloaders, the free-networks movement has begun to morph to survive financially. Some groups are applying for nonprofit status, which should enable them to solicit donations from local corporations and nontraditional Wi-Fi service providers. Others are trying to get government funding on the theory that free networks help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor.

And others are simply turning into commercial operations, offering wireless access at a small profit. Without such strategies, the rising cost of high-bandwidth Net connections could destroy the free-networks movement, says Craig Mathias, the founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.

DONATED GEAR. Personal Telco is a potential survivor. Just this month, Oregon granted it nonprofit status. Another free network of six hot spots in Corvallis, Ore., called Cafwap, hopes to be granted that status in October, says Robert Rose, its 24-year-old president and a Hewlett-Packard programmer.

Both groups figure that they'll have better luck getting corporations to donate equipment such as antennas and access gear if they can earn tax deductions for doing so. Some organizations also count on generous cash contributions from aggregators of wireless hot spots, such as Boingo Wireless, which doesn't own any Wi-Fi networks itself but gathers revenue by selling time on hot spots that have sprung up across the country.

Boingo, which sells wireless service in North America for as little as $24.95 a month, about half what cable and phone companies charge, is in talks with major free networks, such as Personal Telco and NYCwireless in New York, says Christian Gunning, Boingo's director of product management. Gunning won't reveal the nature of those conversations, but some network enthusiasts claim to have received personal calls from Sky Dayton, founder and chairman of EarthLink and founder and CEO of Boingo, who has asked them to enter their hot spots into Boingo's database of 650 such locations around the country.

THE LURE OF PROFITS. Today, most free network groups don't see any benefit in that. But once they have nonprofit status, they could ask Boingo for a donation. Boingo makes out by getting access to thousands of potential customers, while the free networks benefit by getting financial support.

Some free-network groups, such as NoVa Wireless in Northern Virginia, are going commercial. Bruce Potter, a 27-year-old security manager for a tech company, started NoVa when he moved to the area from Alaska in the spring of 2000. He wanted broadband but didn't want to pull cable through his house, which was built in the 1930s. So he installed Wi-Fi instead -- and founded NoVa when he discovered that for $200 a month, he could buy a broadband line that he could share. Back then, he quickly learned that "in this area, there were a lot of people who wanted wireless access but few who could [afford to purchase it and] give it away."

So NoVa, which soon will be be renamed Capitol Area Wireless Network, decided to join with for-profit mom-and-pop wireless-access providers in the area to form a mini-industry association whose members allow their users to roam the association's networks. The member groups share tasks such as equipment maintenance. And they continue to maintain their public-service focus to some extent: The association will offer free wireless access to anyone for, perhaps, 30 minutes a day, Potter says. In fact, he still offers access to his Wi-Fi hot spot for free. "But I live in a wooded area, with mostly older neighbors [who don't use it]," he says.

NOT SUSTAINABLE. Free-access advocates are even tempted to make money from Wi-Fi in places where broadband access is cheapest. That's partly because the cost of billing and authentication software needed to run an online business is coming down, says Boingo's Gunning. Software that a year ago might have cost $2,000 for a Wi-Fi hot spot now costs $500, he notes, encouraging techies from the free-networks movement to cross to the other side.

Even if profit isn't a motive, groups that want to remain solvent may have to charge for service. Execs at 3 Rivers Connect, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh, say they'll still have to charge $19.99 to $29.99 per month to pay for maintenance and equipment upgrades on a two-mile-long network they'll open soon in the city's Oakland section, near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University campuses. "Frankly, a free network isn't sustainable in the long run," says Ron Gdovic, 3 Rivers' executive director.

Paid-for service should be more reliable, since it'll use real antennas instead of makeshift ones contructed partly from Pringles potato-chip cans, for example. Professional installation costs money, too, says Gdovic: Most free-networks groups do the work themselves -- at their own risk. Last spring, Rob Flickenger, the author of the free-networks bible Building Wireless Community Networks (O'Reilly, November 2001), fell off the roof of a two-story building while installing a Wi-Fi link. Photos of him on a hospital bed, with a scar across his stomach, later circulated among the Wi-Fi faithful.

"A GOOD MODEL." Some enthusiasts figure the best source of money is local government. Last June, the city council in Jacksonville, Fla., allocated $175,000 for a pilot Wi-Fi pilot project that will serve the disadvantaged. As part of that test, several local companies have already set up Wi-Fi equipment in two community centers in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Now, they're installing donated computers in the surrounding homes.

"This presents a good model for engagement between the citizenry, local businesses, and the government," says Council member Alberta Hipps. The rest of the free Wi-Fi world might follow suit: Personal Telco, for one, hopes to work with the local government to install hot spots for Portland police and fire crews, says Sam Churchill, one of the nonprofit's volunteers.

Of course, some networks will remain member-supported, paid for entirely by enthusiasts. That's why proponents say the free-networks movement isn't dead. "We aren't going away," states Matt Westervelt, a 30-year-old systems administrator and founder of Seattle Wireless, whose users are creating a telecom network that doesn't rely on access to phone-company broadband connections but instead establishes a Net connection using its own equipment. Since Westervelt and other Seattle enthusiasts pay for the system themselves, it can fail only if something happens to them. "There's no business model involved whatsoever," Westervelt says.

A MATTER OF TIME. Other groups aren't lucky enough to have such benefactors. Even when the economy picks up, support could wane as volunteers maintaining the networks get jobs again and have less time to spend on their avocation. Personal Telco's Ballard, whose laptop is decorated with a "Got Wi-Fi?" sticker, says he's helping out with Personal Telco because he prefers that than sitting around between hotel installations and consulting work, "watching Oprah and eating ice cream out of the bucket." Still, "when the market picks up, I won't have the time to do it," he says.

That rings true for a lot of Wi-Fi enthusiasts, who increasingly are finding that their free movement is anything but. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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