A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Community WiFi Future

New Webs Emerge Across The Globe

By Paul Smart

I’m writing this in the state capitol up in Albany, hooked to the internet via my iPhone’s hotspot. I’m writing this in a local library, in a coffee shop, in a fast food joint by a highway. I’m writing this in the comfort of my own home for a great deal that allows me lots of internet for under $60 a month. I don’t miss the days of dial-up. But I’m wondering what I’m paying for with that monthly payment.

“Our world is different. Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live,” I read online from the late John Perry Barlow’s manifesto, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

Why does it cost to get online? Where does that money go? What you’re paying for to access what is essentially a free network of entities online is twofold.

First off, there’s the cost associated with domain names—those little letters that come after a dot at the end of a web address. Under $10 of that fee, should you go that route, goes to a registry, then an administrative fee (profit) for the big registry companies like GoDaddy that handle such things, and then about 18 cents to ICANN, the private nonprofit that oversees the rules and processes by which domains are registered. Finally, there are the “resellers” who get in with certain names, largely because they’ve cornered markets.

Then there’s the cost involved in actually hooking up to that world-wide web, involving satellites, cables, personnel. We’ve been in cities that treat such services the way a library, airport, café or McDonald’s would: as an investment. But within our nation’s heightened political duality, any discussion of a “free” internet comes down to talk about taxes being anything but free. And safety concerns.

The result is what a Center for Public Integrity analysis of internet prices in five US cities and five comparable French cities found three years ago: that prices in the US were as much as 3.5 times higher than those in France for similar service. The analysis showed that consumers in France have a choice between a far greater number of providers—seven on average. But also that telecommunications companies appear to carve up territory to avoid competing with more than one other provider.

Enter the utopian internet ideas that Barlow—a Grateful Dead lyricist, Wyoming Rancher, and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organization—was espousing two decades ago, and the EFF and other entities are espousing today: a new ideal of community WiFi that counters our safety fears by noting how many already use free internet, and how little private systems do to stop security breaches. They call it the Open Wireless Movement.

Internationally, that impetus has resulted in some nations providing WiFi, such as Estonia, a growing number of major cities, and hosts of smaller communities around the globe. Many are government-funded pushes to provide what many feel is a key modern service to the public. Here in the United States, however, there’s a growing grassroots movement focused within neighborhoods where three basic systems are in play: cluster systems involving the individual sharing of unmetered bandwidth via Wi-Fi; mesh networks where people unlock their private networks and allow others, who might not be able to afford it, to access the Internet through them, or build a concolidated means of accessing internet from central spots; and wireless user groups. As the unnamed organizer of one Washington, D.C. mesh network put it in a story that arose when local government entities threated that his system might prove a national security risk, “We’re talking about the Internet equivalent of neighbors sharing a cup of sugar.”

The idea is simpler than its terminology: instead of opening one’s WiFi access to find a list of locked users, most of whom are hardly using what’s available to them, certain neighborhoods show an openness to shared internet access. In more practical terms, someone volunteers to be a host router, others extend that offer.  Sometimes access speeds dip because of usage. You work with that.

We’re talking about a people’s revolt against an industry, expanding the many ways that many of us already access the web from an endless variety of locations, including our phones. Is it all legal? Hey, there are long lists of nasty lawsuits and arrests, but they seem to be diminishing as focus shifts to larger problems online (think Facebook, or the growing backwinds now aiming towards Google).

Plus, one can always look back towards the very origins of all this for a creationist sense of validation. Back when the idea of a network was first coming to life, it was all operated out of an entity known as ARPANET, a network of computers housed in various universities, government agencies and research facilities. These were the folks who designed the precise protocols that would allow computer systems to speak to each other. Sure, it all operated under the U.S. Department of Defense and no, former Vice President Gore never said he founded any of it. But those were also more honorable times.

Today, the push for a new revolution in internet use, away from the abuses of profit-mongering and more community-minded, is being handled by progressive cities and states, as well as entities like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org), the Open Wireless Movement (openwireless.org), Meta Mesh University (metamesh.org), and turbofuture.com’s new push to build local web networks supported by local advertisers.

“In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost,” noted Barlow in that manifesto he penned in February of 1996 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

Talk about change.