The Invisible Politics of the Public Airwaves

Last month, as part of Breakout! – a collaborative team project that is part of the Architecture League’s ongoing Toward the Sentient City exhibit – a small group including NYCwireless co-founder Anthony Townsend gathered at The Triangle – a slice of pavement equipped with tables, chairs and umbrellas parked in between The Diner and the 14th Street Apple Store to experiment with iPhone applications for mobile work.

Of course, no experiment in mobile work would be complete without “jail breaking” an iPhone in order to enable tethering, the feature that allows one to use their AT&T phone service to connect to the Internet via a laptop computer.

When the cellular network nestled in the “mobile office kit” – a design intervention from the Breakout! project — proved to be too slow for downloading large files, Townsend switched to the Apple Store’s open Wi-Fi network.  That’s when things got interesting.  The store was blocking the file required to install tethering. (For more details, see the Breakout! session transcript).

About a week later, in a meeting with a business improvement district, I learned that Starbucks Coffee wanted to prevent free, public Wi-Fi within reach of their cafes.  It is common for Wi-Fi users to sit inside Starbucks while using a free network across the street.  While not a surprise, this added another interesting example of hidden politics over the reach of unlicensed wireless spectrum.

Like the battle over open vs. encrypted SSIDs referenced in an earlier post, there is a similar fight – albeit a nearly invisible one – over the spaces that the signals leak into and the kinds of information that can be accessed on them.

Yet, the particular geographies of Wi-Fi networks dictate that they can overlap with one another, existing simultaneously in the same space.  So, Wi-Fi is not a technology of exclusivity but rather a public commons that permeates both private and public spaces, typically without much interference.  As such, why should any individual corporation be able to dictate what signals do and do not penetrate within their walls?

In fact, the FCC ruled in Massport v. Continental that landowners are not allowed to control unlicensed spectrum.  Only the FCC itself may regulate spectrum.  Yes, this has not stopped from using their political influence to prevent nearby organizations from broadcasting free signals into their space.

Furthermore, while the few remaining providers of open networks may have a right, or even a responsibility, to control the data that passes through them in some way (a practice referred to as traffic shaping or bandwidth portioning, which optimizes networks for efficiency and speed), it seems unethical to block specific sites or specific files without full disclosure and transparency.

While it is possible to argue that such limitations are intended to prevent abuse, in some cases they are merely enforcing corporate policy.   Thus, there is a need for better technology to enable Wi-Fi sharing while controlling for abuse.  Free sharing rests on the tension between these two needs.

After all, how are users to navigate through the messy politics of the public airwaves?  Networks that shout “Don’t download that file here,” or “You should pay me there.”

While these limits are technically possible, they also push us farther down a slippery slope away from neutral networks and towards walled gardens of content.  At the same time, attempts to block content have also inspired new tools such as the TOR project that are designed to circumvent censorship.

With the increased dominance of mobile phones – which still, for the most part, rely on carrier control over proprietary platforms — as the primary portals for accessing a variety of news and information, these are critical concerns about the Internet’s future.

These issues have long been the subject of intense discussion among community wireless networks around the world.  For this reason, community groups have instituted measures such as the Pico Peering Agreement,which ensures free transit, open communication, no warranty and terms of use.

In the last decade, Wi-Fi has become widely available yet the underlying politics of the networks remain obscure.  Let us keep these invisible political geographies in mind as we embark on new territories of contention where unlicensed spectrum is concerned.

BBC Coverage of Breakout! Festival: Sentient cities may answer back

The BBC sent a reporter, Laura Sheeter, to join Anthony and me as we hosted a Breakout! Festival work session on the bus from NYC to Philadelphia. It was a great experience to actually do some collaborative Breakout! work on a bus while travelling (for those that don’t know, BoltBus has free Wi-Fi on trips between Washington, D.C, New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston), and it was particularly fun having Laura join us. We also spent the day at the great coworking space IndyHall in Philadelphia, right near the Liberty Bell. And we even were able to get some cheesesteaks (what’s a trip to Philly without a cheesesteak?)!

Sentient cities may answer back

Anthony Townsend and Dana Spiegel have spent years installing free wifi in New York’s parks, enabling people to get online almost wherever they want.
Now they are trying to encourage people to use that freedom to escape their offices, even holding meetings outdoors.

They are leading by example, working on the street almost every day while the exhibition is running, to show people that it’s easier than they think. On the day I meet them they’re in Philadelphia looking for a suitable spot, but icy winds are making things rather difficult.

Internet access, comfortable seats and tables and nearby toilets are the essentials you need to find, they tell me.

Finding shelter is high on my list, but Dana and Anthony say that’s not a problem, as there are plenty of public atria which you can work in without returning to the confines of the office.

They’ve brought with them a rucksack filled with supplies – a laptop, a wireless router and a battery-powered printer are the most hi-tech, the rest of the bag contains post-it notes, chalk, paper weights and a mini white board, not at all futuristic.

But why bother leaving the office, where you have everything you need already? “It’s about reclaiming public space and working better”, says Anthony. “Offices are good for clerical work, and that’s about it.

Cheap bandwidth in the burbs? Thank the telephone polls.

Much has been written about the cost effective high speed broadband in other countries, but not about the inexpensive high-bandwidth business broadband available in the US. Truth be told it is fairly difficult to afford more then a basic DSL line for most of the NYCwireless public wireless hotspots. But in some area’s of the country there are some choices and some excellent bandwidth at a reasonable price. In fact when looking for server hosting options throughout the tri-state area recently I found that my basement actually has some pretty good connectivity.

After housing 3 servers in a datacenter for a few years, I decided I could run the servers in-house to save money and have easier access to them for upgrades. I was previously paying about $300 a month for about 3 servers and a firewall. So, I looked into 2 ISPs that focus on my area to see what their business offerings were. The 2 ISPs are Verizon and Cablevision. I selected Verizon due to the support for rDNS (aka PTR records) which is a requirement for mail servers (Cablevision at that time did not support rDNS). The cost for this was $100 a month for 20Mbps down and 5Mbps up with 5 static IP addresses. This was back in 2006. So, I immediately started seeing a $200/month savings.

Recently, there was a need for more static IP space. So, I looked into expanding the IP range provided by Verizon, and was told to go from 5 to 13 IPs it would cost $50 a month. I would gain nothing else but IP space for $50 a month (new total would be $150/month). This is outrageous! I can understand $25, but not $50. So, I contacted Cablevision and was told the largest IP range was 5 IPs but I would get 30Mbps/5Mbps as well. The cost was $75/month and a setup fee of $46.95 which includes install and a Cisco 851 router. So, I decided it was a better deal to spend the extra $25 per month and get a 2nd circuit for more bandwidth and backup purposes. I moved the applications needing more IP space to the 2nd circuit and used the extra IPs for applications (e.g. email & backup) needing redundant circuits.

The cheapest Cablevision business circuit when I tested the bandwidth was 27Mbps/5Mbps. Which is absolutely amazing.

Business Class Pricing (about 2x what residential is)
Verizon – 20/5Mbps – $100
Cablevision – 30/5Mbps – $75

How can a suburan region offer such fast and inexpensive internet. The answer lies on the street, street poles. Street poles versus digging underground (typically urban environments) is cheaper, faster, and easier. Hence replacement of old technologies (e.g. copper, old coxial) with fiber and better equipment in non-urban environment happens faster. Thus I have 50Mbps downloads, 10Mbps uploads, and 10 static IP address for less than $200 a month.

Q&A

How much would that cost with the cheapest reliable hosting provider?
$118 a month for up to a 2U server and a firewall w/5 IPs and 1TB of monthly transfers. I use a hosting provider in Dallas (colo4dallas.com). I shipped a server of mine out there. I did look into many datacenters in the NY metro area, and the cheapest was going to be about $400/month for 1/2 a rack.

How much money do you need to spend on UPS and generator if you wanted to make it more datacenter like?
UPSes are cheap, but I would stick with name brand (e.g. APC, Tripplite, etc). About $200 per 1500VA UPSes. As per generator, get a natural gas (aka liquid propane gas, LPG) powered one. Reason is non-usage doesn’t result in a “clogged” engine due to stale gas. A standard gas generator requires periodic (every 3-6 months) maintenance while natural gas do not. You can also have your LPG generator connected into your main house propane feed or tank, so no manual fueling is needed (make sure you vent it outdoors when running). Natural gas generators are about $1k+ depending on your power requirements. A recommended generator manufacturer is Champion (www.championpowerequipment.com).

How would you handle site redundancy since BGP is not supported (DynDNS, round robin DNS, etc)?

These ISPs cannot handle customer owned IPs (for BGP), so I would recommend application level redundancy. It varies on the application since some will use DNS configuration such as MX priorities, DNS failover via your DNS provider via use of low TTLs, or round robin if the client side application is smart (e.g. backup client, IM agent, etc).

What are the risks? (ice storm, severe weather, etc)
Power outages seems to be the largest risk. The Verizon FiOS circuit and modem have built-in batteries for about 6-8 hours. The Cablevision coxial circuit does not include a battery backup, so I run them using a UPS, but not sure if the field equipment for Cablevision is protected (for Verizon it is).

What are advantages?
Ability to add additional servers without any incremental cost except for power usage, ability to have gigabit traffic between servers, use of Y power adapters for use of redundant power, & ability to swap hardware when needed.

What does the TOS of both providers say about this arrangement?
Terms of Service allow for servers since these are business circuits. Including mail servers, web servers. All uses are allowed except for pornography and illegal content.

Wifi, Wifi, everywhere and not a drop to drink

I really needed an Internet connection in a hurry Sunday night, I pulled over near the Williamsburg bridge in Manhattan, busted out the laptop, and got a list of about 25 Wifi access points. Just my luck every single AP had some form of security enable. In my extremely non scientific study this situation is more common then it was just 2 years ago.

I tried again later at Puck Fare a favorite bar and found that the open wireless networks I could connect to were restricted using a captive portal that allowed only 24Hour Gym members to access the Internet and in another case guests of the Puck Building across the street. So I should be happy that people are taking Wifi security seriously right?

Yes I am happy that home users and business are no longer leaving themselves wide open. But I am still pissed that there was copious amounts of wireless infrastructure that could have met my needs and that technology to provide it to me in a safe and secure way would cost almost nothing to enable.

The industry has done a lot to improve the quality of over the air data protection with the introduction of WPA and WPA2. And Wifi Protected Setup (WPS) has done wonders for easing the burden on end users to configure it properly. Now that it’s easy to be secure can we now put some focus on making it easy to share? Wi-Fi Alliance are you listening?

As usual Apple gets it. The Apple Airport Extreme among other cool features they have introduced something they call Guest Networking. In essence this allows you to create a 2nd secure or insecure wireless network with limited access to your network but full access to the Internet. So you primary wireless network is locked down and only you have the keys. But guests, neighbors within range, and guys pulled over in their cars desperately needing Internet access can share bit of your Internet connection.

NYCwireless public installation use a system we call SuperNode to manage fully public wireless networks. SuperNode is based on several open source projects and allows network sponsors to control access to the network, track usage, deals with abuse in easily managed. If you want to use this in home or office setup to provide guest access yourself check out our online instructions.

Lots of people will read this and be horrified at the thought of sharing their bandwidth with others. But the reality is you would be shocked at how little of the bandwidth you purchased you are actually using. In short there is plenty to go around. And good guest networking solutions allow you to cap how much of your bandwidth you can share with people like me. (Not sure if the Apple software allows bandwidth cap on guest users).

Truth be told there are still some risks that are not addressed well. The guest networking solutions out there are not perfect and more work needs to be done to prevent abuse of public wireless networks.

I never did find a usable wireless network that night and it’s shame the industry has not done enough to address this need. Is it in their economic interest to do so? Good question, smart companies like Apple seem to have figured out the answer. Linksys, Belkin, Dlink, Netgear and others you have some work to do.

New Hardware for Madison Square Park Hotspot

We recently had the opportunity to upgrade the hotspot at Madison Square Park, an I thought I would take this opportunity to show off our latest hardware. The hardware that we installed is the latest outdoor, all-weather gear from Metrix and Soekris. We use a high-powered Wi-Fi radio that provides wireless service throughout the park, including the new park space between 5th and Broadway north of 23rd street.

Continue reading New Hardware for Madison Square Park Hotspot

Municipal Vaporware: Why NYC's Data Mine is A Data Dump

This morning, Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled New York City’s long-awaited Big Apps contest. Big Apps seeks to promote the Internet industry in the Big Apple (it’s sponsored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation) and make local government more transparent.

I’ve been following the evolution of open data initiatives at the municipal level for about a year now, and was really hoping that New York was going to set the bar for future efforts across the country. It doesn’t. In fact it’s hard to understand why some notable local tech superstars like investors Fred Wilson and John Borthwick would sign on to such a lame effort.

First of all, the prize structure doesn’t make sense. First prize is $5,000 and dinner with Bloomie himself. No commitment to fund, adopt, promote or license the app for citywide use. People that build city apps want to engage the public and the investor community, not the city’s political elite. I bet they’d rather have dinner with Andrew Raisej.

Second, despite the fact that the project is primarily aimed at stimulating new business development (it’s coming from the econ dev folks) the rules require all entrants to grant the city a one-year license to distribute the app freely. So anyone thinking of building a paid iPhone app, you’re shit out of luck.

Finally, and most importantly, the NYC Data Mine that is supposed to be the raw materials for these apps, is more of an NYC Data Dump than anything else. Browsing through the 100+ datasets posted this afternoon to the city’s site, you see that about half are just boundary shapefiles easily downloaded or licensed through existing channels. The other half are a dog’s breakfast of static datasets (New! Updated monthly!) in every format from Excel to Access to (gag!) SAS. Hello, people, its 2009. API+XML FTW! Just to take one example, I can’t wait to see what fascinating mashups stem from the historic release of the Department of Consumer Affairs’ list of licensed electronic shops. Because what the world is really lacking is more information about the location of electronics retailers. What this Data Dump looks like is the collected attachments received in reponse to the poor bureaucrat who had to twist every department’s arms for one dataset, so the city could say every department contributed.

As someone who’s spent time brainstorming with government agencies about open data ecosystems, I’m saddened to see that the city has engineered this program for maximum political impact, minimal risk and mediocre innovation. It’s municipal vaporware.

p.s. Guys, you forgot to include the website URL in your press release.

p.p.s The one cool thing they did was used Challenge Post to host the site. Thanks BetaWorks!

Iphone, Google Latitude and a row boat

Publishing your exact location regularly to everyone on the Internet? To some it sounds like a Orwellian nightmare. But this is exactly what Google Latitude allows you to do. Google can grab GPS location data from your mobile phone and it gives you the option of publishing your location at the city level or your exact GPS derived location (if your device supports location that is). You can share your location among a trusted group of friends or it offers you a snippet of code to link to a map you can integrate into a website or blog post. Not to mention it can update your Google Talk status with your location.

I can’t speak for other devices but on the Iphone there is no client required. The Safari web browser for the Iphone in version 3.0 supports the W3C Location API. So all you need to do is enroll your account and surf to http://www.google.com/latitude/. The Iphone OS will ask you if you wish to share your location, if you accept Latitude updates it’s database with your current location. That simple really. The Latitude interface will also show the location of any friends that have elected to share their location with you.

On Sunday I am participating in a fundraiser where I am going to row a 25 foot wooden boat around the island of Manhattan. (if you want to help support youth development in the South Bronx visit my pledge site http://rockingmanhattan.kintera.org/dustintodd). I thought it would be neat to use the Latitude public location badge functionality to show our progress through our 28 mile journey. Latitude offers an almost perfect solution for this. If you visit the Latitude public badge page you can enable the public badge feature (the default is disable.. wise choice) and offers a snippet of HTML code that allows you to include the map with your location displayed on any website or BLOG.

I have included the HTML in this post hopefully when you view this post the map will show my current location. Check back on Sunday the 4th to see us rowing around Manhattan.