Michael Oh attended Making the Connection: The 2004 National Summit for Community Wireless Networks in August: Michael Oh is the fellow behind NewburyOpen.net, and the owner of tech superpowers, inc. He sent in this report:
First off, I think the biggest thing was simply that everyone got together. The CWN (Community Wireless Network) world is something that we're all very involved in, but we're all very locally focused. It's almost by definition that we're mainly interested in our own hometowns, but sometimes that keeps us from seeing that CWNs all end up having a lot of the same challenges.
So, I have to give props to Sascha Meinrath and the crew at U of I that put this together - it was something that we knew there was a need for, but no one had done it - and they created it out of thin air.
I'm also surprised that so many people showed up for the event. By my count, there were somewhere around 150 people, from people like Rob Flickenger (of Metrix and O'Reilly's Wireless Hacking book) to Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation. More surprisingly, there were people there because their grants had funded them to come and do research on how wireless can help community development. That means that CWNs are getting a lot of exposure - and not just to the people that make them.
The turnout solidifies one thing - that CWNs are here to stay, and they are about a lot more than "competing" against for-pay wireless.
CMNs are about community, not about wireless. It's simple to say, but very complex to understand, since community is such a broad-based word. Still, this movement is one of the quickest forming community movements that I've ever seen or been a part of - and we all share the same idea.
That idea is that we all believe that community wireless will make a better world. We don't agree how, and we certainly don't agree what technology it will use, but we're pretty certain it will change how the world interacts. And this change is very different from how the corporations playing with WiFi in public spaces imagine.
The meetings were organized in three tracks - Organizational Models, Technology, and Policy. Going in, I thought that 2 out of 3 were of interest, but the Policy track was really kind of strange to me. I didn't understand fully how spectrum policy really would help the future of our cause.
This is one of the big benefits of the Summit - spending time with the policy "wonks" (which regardless of name, are very interesting people to hang around), at the very least because you're happy that SOMEONE is interested enough in spectrum policy to fight in the halls of Washington for us. Howard Feld and Michael Calabrese were people that I met, talked to, and understood after the summit. You may even see me in Washington sometime if they have their way... :)
Organizationally, the other benefit was meeting all of the other major CWN players in the country. There were people from NYC Wireless, Austin City Wireless Project, PersonalTelco, and others... We got to hang out, share stories of crazy wireless projects gone horribly wrong, and drink beer. I'm hoping that one of the results from the Summit is simply communication between all of the different cities, so we can all work together to further the cause.
I would love to coordinate wireless festivals in 4 major cities on the same day, share technology, or at the very least just have WiFi webcams that allow people in 4 coffee shops all over the country to say hi to each other. We would love to see projects like our Boston Music Project not only exist in 4 cities, but also be connected between the different places, so that anyone in a coffee shop in Boston could experience the newest local bands in Austin. (FYI - this idea was sparked by Rich from Austin's work)
It became obvious that CWNs were already diverging into ideas about culture, arts, media, and community content. While incredibly powerful in concept, we also risk losing the focus of people outside of the WiFi community with this divergence. If we focus on such broad-based ideas, we look a lot more like community non-profits and less like WiFi organizations. Unfortunately, "WiFi as commerce" is the baby of the business section, not "WiFi as community development." In my opinion, that's why all of the CWNs have "fallen off the map" compared to the T-mobiles and Tropos Networks of the world - they're just no longer interesting to the business community anymore.
But I predict that the next wave will be when CWNs begin to provide "national local" content providing interesting local content for their respective cities, but as part of a national movement. That's the vision that I have for CWNs going forward - it's just a matter of getting others to sign on.
Fact is, we're all volunteers, trying to feed ourselves with other activities, so the chances for success depend on how dedicated we can be to another cause when we're already stretched for time. Luckily, there are already great examples of how this happens.
One of the best connections that I made was Prometheus Radio, the guys that came from pirate radio and now specialize in 'powering up' Low Power FM (LPFM) stations. I participated in the Portsmouth, NH, LPFM barnraising last month, and they sure know how to motivate people. FM people have been fighting the fight for many decades - pushing back against the incumbents, correcting FCC shortsightedness, and organizing disparate groups all over the country. CWNs could learn a thing or two from them.
I think that if organized well, we can make the community wireless movement more than just an annoyance to the T-mobiles of the world - by providing content that can only be found locally. And the 1st Summit was a huge step towards that - even if it was just getting everyone in the same room.