I'm a big fan of "Cousin Jack" Franklin.
It's not just that Cousin Jack -- that's his stage name -- owns the only music store in Mariposa County, although that's what drew me to him to begin with. It's Jack's dedication to community-building that I find irresistable.
For years now, he's been a volunteer music teacher in our local elementary schools -- which is why every second-grader considers Cousin Jack his or her personal friend. He spearheaded the drive to get our Board of Supervisors to authorize the creation of an Art Park in downtown Mariposa and he organized a community petition drive to encourage those same Supervisors to approve the use permit for the California Country Music Festival that will draw tens of thousands of C&W fans to Mariposa in 2002.
He even organized his First Annual 72nd Birthday Party as a benefit concert for our Historical Society's climate-controlled document vault project -- an event that raised over 1200 badly-needed dollars for the Vault Fund.
Cousin Jack is omnipresent at Mariposa public events. Folks here love him and he draws a crowd everywhere he goes. He's a born promoter who works tirelessly to bring people together and he cuts a memorable figure, with his ruffled shirt, gambler's vest and bowler hat, so literally everyone here knows him by sight.
And Jack does well by doing good. His little music shop, always stuffed to the rafters with curios, odd musical instruments, tapes and CDs, is world-famous. Tourists and locals alike sing his praises -- in fact, a few years ago, the Board of Supervisors honored his dedication to the community by proclaiming him honorary Mayor-for-life of Mariposa.
And he's accomplished all these things in the decade or so he's lived in Mariposa only by virtue of tireless personal networking.
I'd Love to Change the World
The observation that communities spontaneously arise from the use of computer networks was what led Dr. Robert W. Taylor to propose in the 1960's that the Advanced Research Projects Agency fund what he dubbed the ARPAnet -- a creation that would eventually evolve into what we know today as the Internet.
And ever since the age of unlicensed wireless IP-based networks began in 1997 with the formal blessing by the IEEE of the 802.11 family of protocols, the opposite has also been true -- wireless networks have begun spontaneously to arise from existing real-world communities. In just the past year, that trend has become a real grassroots tsunami.
Unfortunately, certain members of the computer trade press have seized upon the seemingly-invidious "parasitic networks" coinage of former British Telecom CTO Peter Cochrane to characterize the relationship between freenets and traditional telecom carriers, completely misinterpreting his meaning in the process. (Cochrane, in a speech to attendees at IPC's Technology Market Research Meetings, used the phrase in talking about how data can "jump" from device to device -- from a cell phone to an Internet host to a PDA, for instance -- just like a virus.)
That sensation-mongering has needlessly blackened the image of a movement whose philosophy and roots are deep in the Open Source culture. The fact is that wireless community networks are an exceedingly practical solution to the problems of last-mile connectivity in rural and urban areas alike -- and the folks who are building them are, for the most part, selflessly generous and scrupulously ethical people who are trying to better serve their communities.
They are constructing wireless freenets in places as culturally and economically disparate as San Franciso and the Dominican Republic because the technology enables reliable connectivity in those very areas where reliable connectivity has until recently simply been unavailable.
For a place as impoverished and remote as the village of Limon in the Dominican Republic, the sad reality of that statement is easy enough to understand. It might seem a tad counterintuitive in relation to San Francisco, though, given that the Bay Area was one of the intial hotspots for the so-called "DSL revolution" -- and was also a market testbed for Internet access via cable modem.
Allow me to explain.
Virtually all DSL providers forbid the resale of their service, other than by "business-class" customers. Some of them go so far as to prohibit home users from connecting more than one computer to their DSL line -- an absurd and downright dangerous constraint in view of the profound vulnerability to exploitation of most home users' systems. (Note that a firewall box is, by definition, a computer -- and that both the Windows and Macintosh systems' default, "as-shipped" configuration is wide open to attack.) And cable modem service providers, pretty much without exception, ban the connection of additional computers to home accounts without the payment of an additional service charge.
The prohibition against sharing DSL or cable modem lines makes perfect economic sense from the provider's perspective, of course -- their service model is predicated on profiting from the bursty nature of network traffic, which practically ensures that any given computer will be idle most of the time. It is, however, widely perceived as grossly unjust, it is nearly impossible to enforce against those accessing the network via NAT and is thus just as widely ignored by those savvy enough to stick a firewall machine between themselves and the script kiddies.
What terrifies the providers is that their $50-per-month home customers will invite all their neighbors to the party via an inexpensive wireless AP and thereby suck up all their precious bandwidth by filling the pipe with users. The thing is, while that scenario very likely does happen on a very informal level -- within an apartment building or between a small group of close neighbors -- the builders of consciously-constructed community wireless freenets simply don't do things that way.
In part, that's a matter of ethics. If hooking your roommate's computer up to your DSL line is a violation of your TOS, doing the same thing for the whole community is a flagrant breach of contract -- and that's simply Not Done. More importantly, a working community network just can't afford the downtime.
You see, the dirty little secret of the home broadband industry is that both DSL and cable modem service is often as flaky as the blue-ribbon winner at the pastry chefs' bakeoff. Even when the system is up, connection speed varies all over the place -- and in the evening hours, congestion becomes a major problem for far too many customers.
And "business-quality" DSL is often just a pricier version of the same sluggish service.
So the responsible community network builders have no choice but to turn to the old standby: T1.
Yes, it's nominally slower than DSL or cable modem service -- but a raw T1's 1.54Mbit data rate is guaranteed. Likewise, there's no prohibition on reselling T1 service -- in fact, it's assumed as a given. And, unlike DSL, T1 is distance-insensitive -- which makes it a particularly compelling solution in rural areas.
Bring it on Home
If setting up a wireless community network seems like it might be your cup of orange pekoe, you'll be happy to hear that O'Reilly & Associates' redoubtable sysadmin, Rob Flickenger -- perhaps best known for his Web tutorial on how to turn an empty Pringles can into a Yagi-Uday direction antenna -- has joined the ranks of O'Reilly's authors with the recent publication of his book, "Building Wireless Community Networks". It's an excellent, nuts-and-bolts survey of the issues, problems and technologies that concentrates on 802.11b-based solutions.
O'Reilly's "T1: A Survival Guide" by Matthew Gast makes a superb companion volume -- one that will be invaluable in finding your way through the labyrinth of provisioning, configuration, diagnosis and troubleshooting necessary successfully to get a T1 line up and running. I recommend both books without reservation.
Because there will always be abusers -- and because, unless you have an angel with deep pockets to fund your community network, you're going to have to come up with a way to recapture your costs -- you'll also need some mechanism to limit logins to authorized users. For that, the closest thing to an off-the-shelf solution is NoCatNet's NoCatAuth captive portal program, which forces clients trying to associate with your AP to login via a Web page, using HTTPS to encrypt the login data.
The NoCatNet folks -- their name comes from Albert Einstein's humorous explanation of how radio works -- also have a Linux-based wireless-router-on-a-floppy and a tutorial on how to set it up that you may find extremely useful.
I also recommend subscribing to one or more of the half-dozen or so wireless networking lists. There's a lot of cross-posts and an unfortunate number of repetitive newbie inquiries on all of them, but there's also a treasurehouse of practical experience and advanced expertise that you can access in no other way.
As for me, I hope to get my own wireless network up and running Real Soon Now. In the meantime, I'm just grateful that Cousin Jack has been kind enough to invite me to gig with him and to guest star at some of my own performances. The visibility that he's helped me to achieve has allowed me to become part of the Mariposa community much faster than I could have managed without him.
And I think being part of a community is a mighty important thing.
My profile of Robert W. Taylor and other unsung heroes of the Internet
1999 IEEE 802.11 final standards documents (all in PDF format)
BAWUG's international Community Network list
developerWorks User Group/Special Interest Group Registration page
The Ephraim Schwartz Infoworld article that first misrepresented Peter Cochrane's "parasitic networks" coinage
Shawn Brown's "Busy Signals" column, in which the actual meaning of Peter Cochrane's "parasitic networks" coinage is clarified
Rob Flickenger's tutorial on building a Pringles can Yagi
Web home of Rob Flickenger's book "Building Wireless Community Networks"
Web home of Matthew Gast's "T1: A Survival Guide"
NoCatNet's resource-filled Web page:
PersonalTelco's Web page of wireless-related mailing lists with subscribe and unsubscribe information
Scott Ambler's dW article on simple modeling tools (useful for playing with 802.11 client/bridge/ap configurations)
. . .
A somewhat different version of this work was first published by IBM developerWorks at
(Copyright© 2002 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)