“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.
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.
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.
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.”