Wireless for the people

Does the idea of cheap wireless broadband access for everyone sound unrealistic to you? Not to the non-profit Detroit Wireless Project.

Does the idea of cheap wireless broadband access for everyone sound unrealistic to you? Not to Chris Christensen, founder of the non-profit Detroit Wireless Project. He’s on a quest to bring wireless broadband to the tri-county metro area by coordinating a non-profit community wireless network of nodes in cafes and restaurants. Here’s how he plans on doing it.

How and when did DWP get started?

Detroit Wireless Project started Dec. 24, 2003. I had originally done research into starting my own wireless company, installing access points into cafes and restaurants. During my research I contacted a gentleman in California who suggested I learn Linux, since wireless networking and Linux go hand in hand. I took his advice and set aside the business idea to focus on learning Linux and the fundamentals of wireless networking.

During that time I ran across Rob Flickenger’s book “Building Community Wireless Networks.” From it I became familiar with other wireless community projects around the country in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Sonoma County, Calif. The idea was just so attractive to me, and it didn’t hurt that Linux had turned me into an open-source nut.

I mentioned the idea to a friend of mine, and he ran with it. By the time I had decided to do it, he already had several people interested in joining.

Can you explain what DWP does and why you feel it’s necessary?

Detroit Wireless Project coordinates the network, educates node owners, and supplies the back-end authentication for the network. DWP collects donations–money and equipment–and allocates it according to each node. DWP does not underwrite the cost of equipment or the cost of DSL access required to be a node.

Let me start by explaining what a node is. A node is an access point that serves wireless high-speed Internet to a certain area. Each node can be set up by the existing tech people in DWP. We do not want a person’s lack of experience to keep them from becoming a node owner–especially considering the minimal cost for node ownership and the benefit to businesses and the community.

Each node is made up of a router (pre-configured by DWP using Linux, NoCatAuth, and other wireless tools), a wireless access point, and an antenna. As the network grows we will want to connect the nodes together into a mesh network.

We recycle old computers and make them into routers, saving node owners a considerable amount of money. We also work with service providers to acquire discounts on DSL for node owners.

It’s necessary because high-speed Internet should be available wherever, whenever, and it should be affordable as well. There are a lot of business owners who can take advantage of the foot traffic provided by having a wireless node in their business. Ideally, business customers should be able to fire up their laptops, sipping their favorite beverage as they telecommute from their favorite cafe or restaurant.

Neighborhoods should be able to invest in a single line and share it from house to house, lowering the cost from $50 per month to $5-10 per month. This will also get more people connected, and we hope it will help raise their quality of life.

What is your role with the organization?

We have not defined roles yet at DWP. At the moment there are about five people in inner circle who have gone out and done the dirty work of making this happen. I cautiously call myself the director of the Detroit Wireless Project.

What kinds of costs and working hours are involved?

The project is still volunteer-based, and working hours vary according to availability. It is our goal to get funded and be able to do this full-time. Between now and then we will try to put together a solid leadership that will be able to guide the organization through anything.

Cost is minimal. The router can be an old PC (486 or higher) with 32MB RAM and a 500MB hard drive or higher. It will also need an access point that will run about $100. The antenna is manufactured by DWP and provided at cost. The total cost is around $250 for each node. The node owner will also have a recurring cost of around $50 for DSL service. In return, the node owner will have the choice of where each user’s initial Web page will be routed-to the business’s Web site or to a splash page containing information about the business that DWP will design free of charge.

Your stated goal is to create Wi-Fi access covering the entire Detroit area. How close are you to achieving that?

We are nowhere close. Our goal is not a one-week, one-year, or even a five-year plan. The beauty of a wireless community is that it grows through support and involvement and does not have a bottom line. If community support is there, involvement is high and funding becomes available, and the network can grow quickly and be reliable as well.

You recently held a leadership meeting to find some people to help out with the project. How did that go, and how many people are involved at this point? The leadership meeting went well, but attendance was low. There was an ice storm that night and it was not conducive to travel. Currently about five people are actively leading the project. Just today I received inquiries from several people wanting to know how they can get involved.

What kinds of services do you offer to small businesses, and what kinds of fees are involved?

Small businesses cannot hire DWP. If the business wants to be a node owner, we will provide setup and support free of charge as a way of saying thanks for being a part of the project.

If small businesses need further assistance with wireless networking or other IT issues, we can refer them to individuals and businesses that volunteer on the project for consulting. This is completely separate from the project, and DWP collects no fees for the referral. That is not what DWP is about. We want to support Detroit IT workers and companies, not replace them.

What do you foresee developing in the wireless sector over the next year or so?

802.16 will be the big craze of 2004, but that is no secret in the wireless world. Wireless sales were at an all-time high in the fourth quarter of 2003 and it doesn’t look like that is going to slow down. These two factors show a promising future for community wireless projects like DWP. 802.16 will breed new mesh technologies making it easier for projects like DWP to cover a larger area with less effort.

What does DWP have planned for the future?

This is the exciting stuff. DWP has no plans to stop at wireless networking. We want to build community technology centers that will give everyone access to and education about emerging technologies. Even if these centers just have computers, it will be a big improvement over what some areas of the city currently have. City government cannot change this city by themselves. It will take organizations like DWP to make Detroit one of the country’s top metro areas again.

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