Community Wireless Networks – Rebooting Freenetworks.org

Seattlewireless.net

I registered Freenetworks.org in December of 2000 after an unexpected series of events dropped me into the heart of a growing movement in community wireless networks.

Earlier in the year I was LAN gaming with my neighbor and we had an idea. “How awesome would it be to run a network cable up the street and play StarCraft with each other without leaving our homes?” Clearly, running a network cable four blocks was not going work. But one day while visiting RE-PC I came across a used wireless networking kit. “I wonder if can use this to connect our homes. The antennas are removable and I could build better antennas to increase the range.” I ended up buying a Proxim RangeLAN Access Point and PCMCIA wireless card to with the intention of creating a wireless link between my neighbor and me.

Hacking around with the devices was energizing. My mind started spinning with the possibilities of unlicensed wireless network gear. “What if you could build a large wireless network unencumbered by ISPs or Telcos?” In my younger years, I had incredible fun logging into bulletin board systems, experimenting with radio gear and antennas. Wireless networking was an entirely new angle on both these past times, and I was in love with it. I immersed myself in researching wireless networking technology and DIY antenna designs, and looking for other like-minded people.

My internet research led me to Matt Westervelt. Matt had recently set up the Seattlewireless.net website and mailing list. We quickly hit it off, both of us sharing a passion for exploiting the possibilities of off-the-shelf wireless gear. Chatter picked up on the email list as more people found us and we had our first official meeting at the now-defunct Aurafice Cafe. Shortly after, we donated equipment and time to light up Aurafice as the first cafe in Seattle with free wireless internet.

As we started our new adventure, we discovered other projects around the globe: Consume.net, Canberra Wireless Network , BAWUG,  PersonalTelco, BC Wireless, and NycWireless, to name a few.

Crossing The Pond

In the winter of 2000, I parlayed a business trip to the UK into a visit with Consume.net, a London-based project similar to Seattle Wireless. I met James, Julian and Ben from Consume at a pub. “We need to head off to a meeting with someone who works directly for George Soros,” one of then said. “Do you want to join us?” “Who is George Soros?”, I asked naively. “He is an investor who made a cool billion shorting and crashing the pound.” The next thing I know, we are in a London cab to Soros’s office to meet with one his portfolio managers. As it turns out, Soros wanted to learn about community wireless networks, and wireless LAN technology in general.

“What are the commercial applications and implications of this? Could it be used in places where traditional infrastructure is lacking? How much money would you need to really bootstrap this project in a large way?”  These were questions the portfolio manager asked. “I am looking at this not just from a financial perspective but also for the philanthropy George does through the Open Society Institute,” he said.  “Wow,  I thought, we must be really be onto something if folks like Soros are interested in talking to us. This movement could have a massive impact.” Cleary I was not alone in realizing the potential implications of community wireless networks. But that moment really hit home for me.

All of this and more inspired me to create Freenetworks.org as a place to unite various community wireless projects, so we could share, learn, and more importantly help drive the future of this growing phenomenon. We had some hits and our share of strike outs.  In my opinion, some of the best things that came out of it are:

  • A succinct way to talk about what the various groups were building, free networks. Free as in freedom, not as in beer.
  • A pico-peering agreement that projects could use as guidance for how free networks exchange transit.
  • Strong relationships and communication with the pioneers of Freenetworks, some of whom I still communicate with regularly almost 20 years later.

Over the years, this site and many of the original free-network projects have languished. Some from this era, like Personal Telco, are still going. The good news is that the movement has continued without us.  A whole new generation of free-networkers is still are going strong.

So, why reboot the freenetworks.org site now?

Reboot

I made a shocking discovery recently. Attempting to reconstruct a timeline of events from my community wireless days I noticed very little information and history readily available from this period. Most of the project websites, blogs and mailing list I frequented are no longer running. Many of the articles and blogs written in the early period of this movement are offline or hard to search for. “There is so much gold in the history of this grass roots movement that could be lost,” I thought.

On that note I have decided to reboot Freenetworks.org with a focus on capturing and documenting the early days of the free-network movement. It would be a shame for this incredible period of grassroots community-building and innovation to be stuck only in the memories and inboxes of the participants.

Call To Action

If you are interested in contributing to this effort, please contact me. I am going to concentrate on:

  • The chance to do podcast interviews with some of the early community wireless leaders.
  • Interesting stories and history that I can write about.
  • Guest posts.
  • Collecting and posting mailing list and wiki archives that are not online anymore.

6 thoughts on “Community Wireless Networks – Rebooting Freenetworks.org”

    1. Hi Russell,
      I saw on the wiki that PTP is still plugging away. Very impressive PTP has kept the momentum going. How was Battlemesh?

      1. It was a lot of fun. The europeans have (seemingly) had a much better handle on the community part of community wireless networks than us, and have some advantages with regard to geography (taller buildings than trees to allow easier line of sight than in Portland). They were fun to talk to. Also met people from NYCmesh, who are also doing well. And people from South America and Africa. And then there were the pastries.

  1. Hi,
    I was involved with “dublinwan/irishwan.org” back in 2000. We had quite a number of small and large
    volenteer networks all over the country, so some of us got together to try to link these up and build
    an alternatve “intranet”. It was partially succesful but attracted the greedy! They saw the possibility of a fast buck. The end result was the selling off of assets especially the sites we had negotiated which were worth some money. But now I live further north near the boarder and working on a small network for the local rural community. Slowly as funds permit ! Have tried to contact some of my colleagues from that time but to no avail.

    1. Hi Steve,
      Unfortunately I have not been able to dedicate the time recently to add more content to the site. I have a podcast I did with Matt W, my partner in SeattleWireless.net, I am hoping to edit it and get it online in the next few months.

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