By Ed Sutherland
July 15, 2002
Free WLANs in the neighborhood continue to grow, but face competition from more stable access points and broadband ISPs who don’t like everyone sharing the broadband pipe.
Do you remember the days of tightly woven quarters? It was not uncommon to ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar, borrow the hedge trimmer, or use the phone. In a 21st century attempt to regain this proximity, an ever-growing band of community wireless networks, AKA Freenets or Neighborhood Networks (NANs) are mushrooming across the country.
“I’d have to guess in the thousands,” says Tim Pozar, trying to estimate the number of active NANs in the United States. Pozar is part of the Bay Area Wireless Group, a San Francisco group dedicated to the concept of community networking.
NANs are an offshoot of wireless local area networks (WLANs) and Wi-Fi “access points”, with some major differences. Unlike corporate WLANs, NANs are typically configured by an individual to serve a family or a few neighbors.
Wi-Fi Block Party “A NAN covers a small number of blocks around an access point (AP),” says Pozar. With an omnidirectional antenna, a single access point can cover a radius of one kilometer. People wishing to connect to a NAN could then use a directional antenna to fine-tune the access point’s signal.
Pozar says there is no typical NAN provider. This can be an individual or a group of people coming together to share broadband connections.
The NAN concept is relatively simple. You have a broadband connection, whether it’s cable modem or DSL, and you want to share it. Someone with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or PDA sitting next door could then wirelessly connect to the internet, search Google, or check their emails through your connection.
High-tech marketing research firm In-Stat / MDR predicts that the commercial hotspot market will grow from 2,000 locations in 2001 to 42,000 locations worldwide by 2006. Hotspots, such as those offered by Starbucks, differ NANs in that commercial hotspots have a range of only 300 feet – enough to draw tech-savvy customers to a restaurant, cafe or airport. NANs have a broader reach, but proponents, like Pozar, see the commercialization of NANs as a way to accelerate the spread of neighborhood Wi-Fi networks.
Hotspot Hot Water
While the idea of sharing excess bandwidth with neighbors seems like a reasonable solution, many broadband providers see it differently. An individual broadband customer runs the risk of violating their service contract by letting others connect.
Time Warner says it believes NANs violate the service agreement signed by residential customers. The company, known for its Road Runner cable modem service, says it has not decided whether or not to prosecute the violators.
AT&T; Broadband treats neighborhood Wi-Fi networks the same way people who steal cable TV do. AT&T; indicates that when monitoring reveals excessively high continuous use, service is terminated. AT&T; claims that the inability to manage bandwidth usage degrades the overall performance of a network, making it difficult to deliver the kind of service customers expect.
An increase in neighbor-shared Wi-Fi hotspots could cause broadband providers to switch from flat-rate pricing to usage-based prices, says Russ Craig, analyst at research firm Aberdeen Group.
Then there are companies like Covad, a DSL wholesaler. Rather than a threat, the national company sees broadband customers sharing a connection with multiple wireless users as an opportunity to sell more bandwidth.
Pozar says his Bay Area Wireless “promotes the legal use of wireless technology” and advises people interested in sharing their broadband connection to first check their ISP’s acceptable use policy. In his experience, cable modem broadband providers are more stringent than DSL companies. Pozar refers to Pacific Bell DSL as a service that does not strictly prohibit the sharing of a residential connection.
Cash on NANs
Two companies have already started to take hesitant steps in this direction.
New York-based Joltage Networks wants to offer people wishing to set up an 802.11 access point a reduction in revenue when they become a micro-wireless ISP or “access point provider”. They can either share the revenue from opening a hotspot or provide free access and use the software to manage users. Taking a page from Lady Avon’s playbook, Joltage would also pay people who bring others into the organization.
On the West Coast, San Francisco-based Sputnik is calling those who wish to open up their broadband connection to wireless users “Sputnik affiliates.” The open source Sputnik Gateway software includes an integrated router, firewall and SSL authentication. Sputnik affiliates can roam freely through the various gateways.
What does it take to establish your own NAN? Nothing fancy, said Pozar. “Normally just an access point, coaxial cable, and an external antenna. Calculate $ 500 for an average setup, ”Pozar told 80211 Planet.
Are NANs likely to catch fire, as hotspots have already done? “All I can say is we have hundreds of them listed for the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle,” Pozar said. A partial list can be found on Personal Telco Project. “I bet there are 10 times as many that are not listed” because they provide wireless broadband to their own neighbors, says Pozar.