High Speed, Freed

Motley Crew Beams No-Cost Broadband to New York

"This is why I love New York," says Anthony Townsend, standing in the middle of Washington Square Park, holding his laptop computer like a butler's tray and scanning the adult playground the place becomes on hot summer evenings. Where else, he asks, can you walk around with a computer, surf the Web, and go utterly unnoticed?

As if to prove his invisibility, or perhaps to demonstrate that he belongs, he hoists his machine like some digital prayerbook and begins chanting: "Jesus! Jesus! Thank you!"

No one—not the guy playing the Ramones on acoustic guitar, not the tonguing teenage lovers—notices this modern miracle worker or the cybernet he has cast around them. Along with some 30 other volunteers in a group called NYCwireless, Townsend's on a crusade to set up wireless Internet access zones: small areas, often called free networks, where people can tap into high-speed connections, without cables or phone lines, at no cost.

Illustration by Gilbert Ford

The Washington Square network already exists—thanks to a homemade setup Townsend rigged in late July in his nearby office at NYU.

Call it a marriage of the Web and pirate radio, forged even as big telecom interests bicker over the rights to wireless-spectrum licenses. Last week, the White House announced it would ask the Supreme Court to uphold the seizure of licenses from Next-Wave, which bought them at auction but failed to make payments.

Meanwhile, the Washington Square network already exists—thanks to a homemade setup Townsend rigged in late July in his nearby office at NYU, where he's a fellow at the Taub Urban Research Center. Townsend, 27, used an antenna to broadcast his connection a few hundred feet out into the park. So far only a handful of these networks, which operate on a spectrum labeled 802.11b, have been activated in New York. But if the group has its way, zones like these will soon be springing up everywhere, spreading Net connections like streetlamp light to anyone willing to put a cheap plug-in card into a computer.

Aside from the opportunity to perform evangelical chants, why, you might ask, would Townsend and his friends do this?

For starters, they have an earnest desire to share, a hacker's love of all things jury-rigged, and an almost quixotic yen to make connections—human links, as it were—in an impersonal city. Yet the simplest explanation is that they do it because they can.

Building a free network requires some expertise, but using one is almost easy. Those who wish to log on simply need to slip a "WiFi" card—which contains a mini-antenna, costs about $100, and is available at computer shops—into a slot on their machine and enter a few basic settings. Then they can cruise the Internet and send e-mail as they normally would. The NYCwireless Web site, www.nycwireless.net, lists a handful of the currently active networks.

Sharing resources like this is a longstanding tradition within the technology world, from kids swapping music to programmers teaming up to improve Linux. That's what attracted Terry Schmidt, an independent consultant, who joined forces with Townsend this spring. Schmidt, 25, says he wanted to contribute his know-how to a group effort. "I wanted to give something back," he says.

But free things draw suspicion these days, now that share-the-wealth movements like Napster have acquired the taint of the mass-looting spree. Schmidt, who along with Townsend acts as an informal spokesperson for NYCwireless, firmly rejects the Napster comparison and says his group is simply giving the bandwidth they pay for to anyone who happens to be nearby. "I'm sharing it with people," he says. "I'm not selling it. I'm not making a profit off it."

Which doesn't make Internet service providers any happier. Though most broadband companies don't seem much aware of free networks, a Time Warner Cable spokesperson says such sharing could violate the terms of its residential-subscriber agreement.

In any case, Schmidt says he spends lots of time attempting to explain that this is not some new dotcom business idea, that there is no commercial hook beneath the giveaway lure. At a recent tech convention in Las Vegas, he tried again. "They would ask, 'What's the business model?' " he recalls, "and we'd say, 'There is no business model. It's free.' "

Those in the free-network community, both in New York and elsewhere, treat the project mostly as a hobby. Part of this reluctance stems from wanting to avoid the responsibilities of running a business. If no one gets charged, then no one can complain when things don't work. And by not charging, they're much less likely to draw the attention of those supplying the bandwidth they're sharing. But it's also evident that a communitarian impulse powers their most ambitious vision, of a city blanketed with public Internet access.

"I want to make it an attractive thing for everybody to use. I want to make it easy," says Schmidt, who thinks broadband connectivity is close to becoming as necessary as water or electricity, and as such should be in public places, as available as drinking fountains.

On May 3, Schmidt got the first NYCwireless network up and running in a coffee shop near his Upper East Side apartment. "Basically, that was a nightmare," he says, sounding as genuinely disturbed as a horror movie fan spooked by a scary flick. Convincing the shop was not a problem. As he told the management, the project would cost them nothing, require no work on their part, and enable their customers to surf the Web for free. The problem was that between Schmidt's place and the café—a distance of about 100 feet as the crow flies—stood several 16-inch-thick brick walls and enough curves to exhaust even the strongest radio wave.

Next Page »