In this New York Times piece, I look at the transformation of community wireless networking advocates from hardware hackers to political operatives: The first wave of community wireless networking (CWN) groups appeared around 1999 and 2000, and this first wave inspired a larger wave that followed. While CWN initially focused in many cities on installing hotspots and helping to set up free locations, the larger themes have taken over as hardware as gotten cheaper to buy and easier to run.
When I started thinking about writing this article months ago, I thought I would be writing an elegy for community wireless. It seemed to me that membership had dropped, groups had disbanded, and leaders had left their positions. Instead, after talking to a few dozen people, many involved since the early days, I discovered that the focus has shifted away from the brute force stage and into subtlety.
In the early days, most groups were talking about how to create antennas, build node maps, modify firmware, buy gear for cheap, and get locations hooked up. Some were thinking all along about building their own citywide networks; others just wanted to convince all manner of venues to offer service for free.
Over time, it's become so easy to create a Wi-Fi hotspots or even a zone spanning a fair amount of area, that the challenges have shifted to issues like network neutrality, or making sure that everyone can use a network without prejudice for purpose or equipment. Many of the ideas of community networking have found their way into municipal proposals, and many of the wireless advocates I spoke to have tried to shape these proposals--often successfully.
Seattle Wireless probably represents one of the highest achievements in the area of neutrality, because they've built a network of what looks like now over a dozen nodes that use an open-source mesh routing protocol to create a neutral medium. Anyone can plug in multiple times into any point on the network to create tunneled services across the entire redundant, optimum route system. There are no rules on what the network is used for, which makes it unique. Their new Capitol Hill location gives them one of the highest points in Seattle from which their antennas can be "seen" and thus employed. (A bad bit of phrasing I wrote in the article makes it sound like the tower is their only location; it's just a centrally located, very high one.)