Emerging Technology: Wi-Fi Networking

Wi-Fi networking could be the foundation of a new form of community.

By Steven Johnson|Sunday, June 25, 2006
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS

Like millions of other computer users around the world, I have a high-speed Wi-Fi, or wireless network, running in my home. Because wireless signals can travel through walls, I know that my neighbors have access to the network as well, and every now and then, I see evidence that they're using my Internet connection. I could easily put up a password to keep them out, but I choose not to for two reasons, one altruistic and one selfish. They're not slowing down my computer in any noticeable way. And at least one of my neighbors—I don't know who it is—maintains another open Wi-Fi network that I occasionally use. I once had a problem with the cable line going into my house and lost my high-speed connection for a week. But it made little difference, because I could log on to my neighbor's network. Such sharing is the digital version of borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor when you've suddenly run out in the middle of making a cake.

Similar unspoken arrangements among neighbors have become increasingly commonplace in urban areas all over the globe. Already hundreds of maps documenting open Wi-Fi nodes are available on the Web, and there are probably hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people engaged in precisely the sort of casual bandwidth sharing that my neighbor and I practice. I find there to be a strange but telling mix of community and isolation in our arrangement. There's an openness to it, a sense of camaraderie and free exchange. And yet, at the same time we are each restricted to our separate online explorations. We share a digital resource, but we don't talk about it. We don't even know each other's identity.

These impromptu arrangements have been replicating so quickly that it is now conceivable that the dream of universal Wi-Fi—long prognosticated by futurists—will eventually be strung into reality via these patchwork alliances. The universal Wi-Fi network could turn out to be a bottom-up grassroots affair and not a top-down intervention. Instead of a handful of giant telecommunications companies spending billions of dollars to build a network of satellites and cell towers, the Wi-Fi network would grow organically as individual users build out the network node by node. And instead of being taxed to pay for Wi-Fi antennas to be installed in streetlights, a project a number of cities are considering, residents might just build the network themselves.

Or they might be prodded into action by an Argentine-born entrepreneur named Martin Varsavsky. The veteran founder of two successful telecommunications companies, Varsavsky has recently launched a venture that plans to cover the globe with Wi-Fi through what he calls, with typically revolutionary brio, a "people's network." His model is not the giant telecom companies with their expensive satellites and towers. His model is the implicit reciprocal arrangement that has evolved between my anonymous neighbor and me. Varsavsky wants to transform the ad hoc secret sharing of neighborhood Wi-Fi into a global quilt, stitched together by ordinary users. But this is not a purely bottom-up effort. In Varsavsky's model, the people will do the stitching, but they'll buy the thread from a company called Fon.

The ingenious core of Varsavsky's plan for Fon lies in the way the system adjusts for both altruistic and commercial motivations among "the people." The world is already populated with thousands of open Wi-Fi hot spots maintained by people who share their bandwidth because they're committed to the open sharing of information. Fon calls those generous souls Linuses, after the patron saint of open-source software, Linus Torvalds. But Varsavsky adds a clever twist: Even the Linuses have an added incentive to join the Fon network. If they open their bandwidth to anyone who wants to hop on, they can take the same liberties at any other Fon hot spot in the world. Give and you shall receive.

What if you want to make a buck off sharing your Wi-Fi network? Fon has a category for you as well—in company parlance, you're a "Bill" (after a certain Bill Gates). Bills can sign up for Fon and charge their neighbors for access: approximately $12 per day or $50 per month. Bills take 50 percent of the cut, but if they stumble across another Fon network when they're away from home, they'll have to cough up the cash to sign on, unlike the Good Samaritan Linuses.

The third category of user is called an Alien—someone who doesn't maintain his or her own network but merely piggybacks on Fon hot spots. For Aliens, Fon is a simple pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi service, not unlike the hot spot providers you find today in airports and hotels and Starbucks.

Fon is a fascinating gamble, though it's too early to tell if it will ultimately pay off, either as a business or as a grassroots political movement—or maybe as both. Varsavsky has attracted an impressive array of early investors, including Google, but some of the crucial pieces are still missing. You can download software from the site to convert your existing Wi-Fi network into a Fon compatible service, but you're limited to the Linus plan at present.

Still, in this age of blog journalism and user-authored encyclopedias, something feels right about building a global network of wireless access points via this bottom-up route. In a way, Fon is a reversal of the old Field of Dreams slogan: "Build it and they will come." If you set up the right incentives, if you target the Bills and the Linuses, then they'll build it for you. Of course, the Fon system is not likely to work except in urban areas where the population density is sufficient to sustain the network; outside those environments, top-down solutions will have to be employed to build the network out. But since 50 percent of the people on the planet live in urban areas, wireless quilts could get us a long way toward universal Wi-Fi.

The real question I have about Fon revolves around the community ethos that helps promote the product. Varsavsky talks about Fon bringing together "those wanting to contribute to free universal communication and solidarity," and the site contains maps and blogs documenting the growing community of Fon participants. I don't mean to be dismissive of the motives here. Widening the world's access to online information is a laudable goal, whether you're a Bill or a Linus or even a corporation trying to harness the passions of all the Bills and Linuses out there. But there are limits to the kind of community interaction that Fon makes possible. When I log on to my neighbor's Wi-Fi network, we're engaging in an admirable bit of local resource sharing. But we're not communicating with each other in any way. In fact, I don't even know which neighbor the network belongs to. The same social distance is likely to restrain the community interaction of Fon's people's network.

Opportunities exist nonetheless. When you sign on to a commercial network at an airport or a hotel, you invariably encounter an opening screen that asks for a credit card or a user account before you're allowed to roam the Internet on your own. The Fon system will have a similar initial screen—if only to differentiate among the Bills, Linuses, and Aliens. But that screen need not be devoted purely to the commercial transactions of signing up for the service or entering your Fon ID. It could also be a launching pad for a new kind of community interaction, half virtual and half physical. The screen could include information about local history, a public discussion board connecting all the Fon access points in the neighborhood, or perhaps just a brief biographical sketch of the Linus who owns the network in the first place. If city governments want to sponsor grassroots Fon networks—and thus waive the $80 fee for the Aliens—they could use those opening screens to build new kinds of awareness of local services and events. The screen, in other words, could become a kind of public space, where new encounters become possible between people sharing real-world geography.

Building a universal Wi-Fi network from the ground up is, in theory at least, an admirable idea, and one whose time appears to have come. But if the people who build it use the network only to connect to the Web, something crucial will be lost in all that infinite bandwidth. The only thing more empowering than a people's network is a people's network where the people actually get to talk to one another.

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