High Speed, Freed

Motley Crew Beams No-Cost Broadband to New York

First, Schmidt experimented with a variety of powerful antennas and signal amplifiers, all of which, given unobstructed views, can be used to propel a signal many miles. No luck. Then the brainstorm hit. The handiest solution to the wireless network, he realized, was to run a wire. Off he went to Home Depot, where he bought 250 feet of Ethernet cable to pipe the broadband connection from his apartment to an access point in the coffee shop, which would in turn distribute the signal. After securing permission from his landlord—who also owned the coffee shop's building—he set about finding a means to get the cable through those walls.

Enter Schmidt's friend who works as a metal fabricator. He customized the bit needed to bore a slender channel through such thick walls, leaving only the matter of drilling the actual hole. For this Schmidt used a hammer drill, which is kind of like a jackhammer for the do-it-yourself crowd. Schmidt was then able to run the cable from his apartment to the shop, where he snaked it into a Rubbermaid container that held the miniature broadcast antenna.

In some ways that's when the real work started, as group members were forced to grapple with the question of what their wireless network might evolve into and how it might be used. Townsend, the urban planner, has visions of location-based services delivering information to people according to where they are. But he admits to not knowing exactly how a large-scale system of free networks will function. "What we're doing is building an infrastructure," he says, confident that once it's in place people will figure out things to do with it—especially once they start carrying handheld computers with wireless connections.

Illustration by Gilbert Ford

Creating a truly widespread system will take more than a handful of volunteers. The most optimistic members of NYCwireless talk of a "cloud" of free WiFi networks filling the skies of New York City with Internet connectivity. As it turns out, thousands of private corporate networks already exist, having been designed to give employees wireless broadband connections.

Those in NYCwireless know this is so because a member recently went out "war driving," a method for detecting active WiFi networks that involves outfitting a car with global positioning technology, a hood-mounted antenna, and a suite of special software. The term comes from "war dialing" (popularized in the Matthew Broderick movie War Games), in which phone number after phone number is automatically dialed in the search for a modem.

War driving is of interest to the free-network movement for two reasons: It helps demonstrate the ubiquity of WiFi networks and exposes the security problems that need to be addressed for the networks to be secure and, potentially, more popular. The drive through Manhattan, which covered only a portion of midtown, identified approximately 1400 WiFi networks.

Though many of these networks were inaccessible to the average WiFi card-carrying computer user, anyone with a little networking savvy could likely break in. Security flaws are as much a concern to free-network operators as they are to their corporate counterparts, since network abuse—sending out spam or threatening e-mail—could lead to their being shut down. War driving helps raise awareness within the tech community that these networks are not yet secure.

Ultimately, a more pressing question is whether ordinary people will start using these free networks. According to Schmidt, three months after establishing the access point, only about one person per day taps the connection. Hooking up, after all, requires someone with not only the wherewithal to buy a wireless card but also the desire to play with what many people see as a work tool.

Whether these free zones flourish remains to be seen. But by another measure the effort is already a success. Adam Shand, a Portland, Oregon-based advocate of the movement, observes that "computers are fundamentally an isolating technology."

Because the Internet helps connect people at a distance, the computer-dependent have spent less time hanging around each other. Wireless free networks—both because of the work required to build them and the signal's limited range—could bring back the fun of being together. Rather than seeking an escape from 24/7 Web access, people could leave their desks and wander out to the digital commons, no longer isolated.

Back in Washington Square Park, Townsend's just happy everything checks out. He tests the first live feed of streaming video. It's of a teenage girl on CNN, talking about what Ecstasy did to her. "I didn't care about anything except doing X," she says. "I didn't want to wake up unless it was to do X."

Townsend stares at the screen. "This is fucking cool," he says. "This is better than 3G"—the high-speed network cell phone companies are hyping. "That's not even half the speed of what we're getting. And it works."

Today on villagevoice.com:

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