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Publication Date: Friday, March 01, 2002

Land of the 'Freenet' Land of the 'Freenet' (March 01, 2002)

Palo Altan provides free Internet to Ventura neighborhood

by Pam Sturner

Whenever he goes out for a walk in Palo Alto, Paul Gregg looks for antennas, hoping to find a building owner who will make room for just one more.

The 24-year-old Palo Alto resident needs rooftop space, the higher the better, to expand a free wireless network he set up for his neighbors in the Ventura neighborhood last fall. He would like to provide coverage to the entire city.

"I don't think the Internet should be this commercial thing," he says. "To me, the Internet should be free, like water or air."

Gregg joins a growing number of people nationwide who are building community wireless networks based on a standard known as 802.11b. The technology allows residents within a radius of several blocks to share a single Internet connection. It has taken off among consumers because of its low startup costs, which these days amount to just a few hundred dollars.

Like many others in the "community freenet" movement, Gregg is a veteran ham radio operator -- he got his license at 14 -- who learned about 802.11b networks on the Web. The appeal of the model grew for him after he moved to Palo Alto, where he struggled with cable modem service that left him without a reliable connection for weeks at a time.

With time on his hands after August, when he was laid off as a multimedia engineer from SGI, he set to work. Using surplus antennas, boxes called access points and coaxial cable bought on Internet auction site eBay for under $500, he built the system and launched it in early December.

He notes with delight that the network, which he named Palo Alto Freenet, is exactly what the cable company's wasn't. "It's cheap, it's fast and it works," he said.

The freenet model -- building community while reaping the benefits of cheap Internet access -- has gained a large following in the past 18 months as equipment prices have dropped. Groups have sprung up from Seattle to New York to help users get started.

Tim Pozar, a founder of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, estimates there are already a million access points deployed nationwide. "There are a lot of computer geeks who want to aggregate their bandwidth," he said.

Command central for Palo Alto Freenet is Thai City Restaurant at 3691 El Camino Real. The owner, known simply as Meng, offered his rooftop as a site for the main antenna after the management of Gregg's condo complex refused permission. The two men then wired the restaurant for Internet access, which Meng plans to offer customers once the internal network has been tested and debugged.

This is just the kind of cooperative effort that Gregg hopes the network will foster. He talks enthusiastically about spreading the spirit that drives the ham radio community, where experienced "elmers" help newcomers.

"Someone sends out the call, and there will be three or four guys who'll come out and put up the antenna. If someone needs help, guys rush to help," Gregg said.

So far, Palo Alto Freenet has attracted a half dozen regular users. One has contacted Gregg about setting up a connection at Boulware Park on Chestnut Avenue.

For users tempted to cancel their DSL subscriptions, Gregg stresses the freenet works well for a few limited uses: checking e-mail, browsing the Web, playing online games and downloading files. "It's not for delivering movies to your house."

Gregg also cautions that the network offers no data protection. A proponent of encryption, he points out that no Internet connection is truly secure, a risk many people are unaware of. "You almost have to say . . . you don't want to have (a home computer) hooked to the Internet if you're using the computer for your taxes," he said.

Palo Alto Freenet employs the newest technology available for 802.11b. It has a range of about a mile and achieves data speeds of 3 to 4 megabits per second. To guard against slow-downs that wireless networks often suffer, Gregg installed a "traffic shaper," software that gives priority to certain uses over others. "If 20 people are downloading music, it won't affect the guy playing an online game," he said.

Like other wireless enthusiasts, Gregg is looking for ways to expand 802.11b systems. According to Pozar, the Bay Area Wireless Users Group founder, help may soon be on the way. A set of protocols now in development will improve "meshing," the linkages between networks.

Even without the new technology, Pozar says, there are nearly enough access points to provide reliable coverage across distances. "Since there are so many (access points), if one isn't reliable, you can point the antenna in another direction to get one that is," he explained.

Freenets have become so widespread that Pozar believes they may impact the next generation of cellular technology, called 3G, which is expected to hit the market within a few years. By providing cheap, fast service, he points out that 802.11b technology could draw customers away from 3G before it even makes its debut.

Pozar also sees the time drawing near when Internet Service Providers (ISPs) raise rates to compensate for the number of people sharing connections. They may also crack down on sharing. "I think you'll see more ISPs become stricter with their use policies," he said.

Aware that ISPs are taking note of increased sharing, Gregg fully expects a call from his provider someday to ask about the network. That question and others have him thinking about Palo Alto Freenet's economic future.

Gregg wonders how he'll reconcile his belief in the Internet as a grassroots domain with the need to make Palo Alto Freenet self-sustaining. Someday he might set up a rate system managed by the traffic-shaper, which could give priority to paying users over those who fly free. Nor has he ruled out asking local businesses to help with administration. For now he plans to support the system himself, using income from his Web sites and consulting.

He is also taking his case to the community, where he hopes to find help obtaining the major components of building the network: bandwidth, labor and, of course, rooftop space.

Among those who find the enterprise -- and Gregg's enthusiasm -- compelling is Meng.

"When you work with him, you get excited because it's something new," he said of Gregg. "You can't imagine how he figured it out." Those interested in learning more about Palo Alto Freenet can visit Gregg's Web page at www.geocities.com/kd4idr/pafreenet.

E-mail Pam Sturner at [email protected]


 

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