WiFi Access is for Everyone

The following technology-themed article appeared as part of my regular guest column contribution to the Eureka Times Standard Newspaper. In this 07/16/02 column, I discuss the growth of DIY WiFi Network Access Points.

WiFi Access is for Everyone

Last night I dreamed that I attended a meeting with a client who strolled into a cafe, opened up her laptop, clicked on a few icons, and instantly connected to the Internet to show us her company’s new website. Just like that. Without cables, and with lightning speed.

Then I woke up, and remembered that connecting to the web outside an office is never that easy. Yet, in places all across the world, it’s becoming easier to connect to the Internet without wires, as hobbyist techies work feverishly to make this dream a reality.

Currently, many people lucky enough to have DSL, Cable Modem, Frame Relay or T1 capabilities, use wireless technology in their offices and homes, to give everyone in the building network and Internet access without the hassle of wires. Some people are taking this technology, known as 802.11b, or WiFi, for Wireless Fidelity, one step further, and starting a revolution.

All around the world, free or low cost high speed Internet community networks are popping up, as people share their high speed Internet connection with neighbors via a wireless community network. With less than $1,000 in equipment and an external antenna, such as a converted can of Pringles, it’s relatively easy for one technically inclined individual to extend their network’s high-speed connection beyond their home or office, and share it with others in the surrounding neighborhood.

Neighbors can then spend less than $100 on Access Point equipment to receive the signal. The signal can then go to on the next neighbor who supplies an Access Point, and so on and so on. Neighbors up to 6 miles apart, with good line of site and weather conditions, can then enjoy the benefits of high speed access without the high cost of directly subscribing to it.

In cities like San Francisco, Portland, and London, people are starting WiFi Neighborhood Access Points (NAPs) cheaply and easily, and tapping into them to enjoy high speed bandwidth whether they’re in their home office or studying in a cafe. As the number of free agents able to work wherever they want continues to grow, the demand for on-the-spot information is increasing. Demand is expected to skyrocket, as more people experience the benefits of WiFi connections. So far, hobbyists are committed to maintaining no-cost or at least low-cost access, to spread out the cost of the Internet connection.

Internet communities like FreeNetworks.org believe that free networks are “an exercise in telecommunications freedom. A network created by those who use it rather than brought to consumers by business.

Of course, phone, cable and broadband wireless companies are calling it piracy, and remain extremely concerned about this revolution, since less paying subscribers will eat into their bottom line. Corporate money is also getting in the way, as companies like Boingo Wireless, cuts more and more deals with multiple WiFi providers, to let paying users hop from one network to another, with a single Boingo account. Other entrepreneurs are starting their own low-cost WiFi networks in their towns. And the legality of WiFi networks is still unclear, with the FCC sure to have an opinion about it sometime in the near future.

Some Starbucks cafes have wireless access but don’t see a huge demand by customers, and others like Texas-based MobileStar have tried it but gone bankrupt. It’s unlikely that investors will start pouring money into NAPs. Until then, if you’d like to start your own WiFi network, there’s plenty of excellent resources out there, including:

Rene Agredano is a Board Member of the Redwood Technology Consortium, and co-owner of Agreda Communications, a full service marketing communications firm leading the revolution for high speed access for all.

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