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 4 blocks was not going work. But one day while perusing 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 might be able to build better antennas to increase the range.” I ended buying a Proxim RangeLan Access Point and PCMCIA wireless card to with the intention of creating a wireless link between myself and my neighbor.

Hacking around with the devices was energizing. My mind started spinning about 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, DIY antenna designs and looking for other like minded people.

My internet research led me to Matt Westervelt. Matt had recently setup the Seattlewireless.net website and mailing list. We quickly hit it off, both sharing a passion for exploiting the possibilities of off the shelf wireless gear. Chatter started to pick 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. Consume.net was a similar project to Seattle Wireless based in London. 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. Do you want to join us?”, they asked. “Who is George Soros?”, I said in naive voice. “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 George 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?”, were questions the gentleman Soros sent after us asked. “I am not just looking at this from a financial perspective but also for the philanthropy George does through the Open Society Institute“, he said”.  “Wow, we must be really be onto something if folks like Soros are interested in talking to us. This movement could have a massive impact”, I thought to myself. Cleary I was not the only one who was realizing the potential implications of community wireless networks. But that moment really hit it home for me.

It was out of all this and more that Freenetworks was created to unite all of these 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 as well. Some of the best things that came out of it my opinion are:

  • A succinct way to talk about what these groups were building, Free networks. Free is a 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 between the early pioneers of Freenetworks. Some of which whom I still communicate with regular almost 20 years later.

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

So why reboot the freenetworks.org site now?

Reboot

I had a shocking discovery recently. Attempting to reconstruct a timeline of events from my community wireless days I noticed very little information and history from this period is readily available. 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 networks movement. It was an incredible period for grass roots community building and innovation. It would be a shame for it to only be stuck 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 opportunity 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/wiki archives that are not online anymore.