Thanks to a small army of enthusiasts, free wireless Web access is sprouting up all around the world. But how long can it last?
If you’re not looking closely, it’s easy to miss the wi-fi antenna atop San Bruno mountain just south of San Francisco. There are a couple of dozen TV and radio broadcast towers, each about 300 ft. tall, surrounded with chain-link fences and electromagnetic radiation warning signs. The wi-fi antenna is a solitary 18-in. plastic stick that radio engineer Tim Pozar stuck up there on his day off. If it disappeared, fewer than a hundred people would notice. “It takes geeks like me, putting up antennas, to make this work,” says Pozar.
What the geeks get in return is nothing short of astonishing. If you live in San Francisco and can see San Bruno or any of 16 other nodes in the home-brew San Francisco Local Area Network (SFLAN), you can stick your own wi-fi antenna on your rooftop, angle it in just the right direction and receive a clear, high-speed Internet connection—even from the other side of the city. The cost? Less than $100 if you buy your own parts, which can include an empty Pringles can. After that, you pay nothing. Nada. Zippo. Not a dime in monthly access charges. You and your neighbors get free wi-fi Internet access, perhaps for life.
If this sounds like a grownup version of schoolkids connecting tin cans with string for a science fair and dreaming of putting the phone company out of business, well, that’s because it is. Proponents of free wi-fi like Pozar believe that paying for Internet access is as dumb as paying for a radio signal (which is, of course, exactly what wi-fi is). Already their tin cans and string have scored successes from Manhattan to Milwaukee. Small retail outlets such as bookstores and coffee shops are starting to get with the program too. They find that giving away bandwidth is an easy way to attract customers.
As for free wi-fi in San Francisco, the city has Brewster Kahle to thank for sowing the seeds of SFLAN back in 1997. An entrepreneur who sold his search-engine business to Amazon.com, Kahle now runs the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that collects and stores a vast library of defunct Web pages. He buys his Internet access wholesale from a local company at the bargain rate of $30 per megabit per month. The archive needs many thousands of megabits to do its job, and Kahle considers the amount of bandwidth that Pozar’s San Bruno antenna requires—which costs Kahle less than $200 a month—to be insignificant. He is prepared to be far more generous. “We’re a library,” he says. “We’re in the business of giving away information.”
Still, SFLAN is in its infancy; the connections continue to be very buggy and nodes often go down. The next step is to build up a critical mass of roughly 50 nodes, at which point everyone in the city should be able to see at least one antenna. Kahle’s high-speed Internet donation should comfortably support thousands of users, as long as they are not all simultaneously downloading Hollywood movies. If SFLAN gets any larger than that, Pozar admits, it will have to start charging some premium users and offering preferred access to paying customers.
There’s the rub—one that pay-for-service wi-fi providers are quick to point out. Such companies as Comcast and SBC grumble about free wi-fi services the way parents complain about their teenagers, calling them unreliable, irresponsible, spotty and insecure. They may have a point. “A company providing only free access would defy the laws of economics,” warns Mike Smart, senior vice president of product management, engineering and operations at the Silicon Valley wi-fi firm GRIC. He and others believe that somewhere along the line, somebody is going to have to pay for the connection.
True, but that somebody could be the taxpayers if, as some propose, the government were to subsidize free wi-fi as a public utility—which is already happening in downtown business districts as diverse as Long Beach, Calif., and Athens, Ga. That may sound radical, but federal intervention at some level will probably be necessary if wi-fi is ever to become as widely available as the wired Internet is today. For one thing, wi-fi operates on a radio band that is already terribly overcrowded. “We need federal help,” says Pozar, “or this is going to turn into just another CB radio.”
In a perfect wi-fi world, you wouldn’t have such a hard time spotting the 18-in. antenna on top of San Bruno—because it would be the only one there. Theoretically, given enough unlicensed radio bands and megabits too cheap to meter, you could transmit via wi-fi all of today’s broadcast TV and radio programs and every phone call (cellular or wired) as well—most of it free. That may sound like a tin-can-and-string utopia, but if the past 50 years of technology have taught us anything, it is this: never underestimate what geeks with the right tools can do.