Category Archives: From the Executive Director

Using Common Sense When Sharing a Wireless Network

Today I received an email from an NYCwireless supporter about sharing out their organization’s Wi-Fi network. I thought it was a general enough request for information that I’d share our viewpoint and suggestions with other NYCwireless readers:

Should we share our password-protected network with a neighbor???

Hi. Thanks for your advocacy.

We recently password-protected our Verizon wireless network. (We were having intermittency issues and this was one of the remedial measures we chose to take.) And we just got a call from someone who’ll be staying in the neighborhood for a few months, asking to share our network for a nominal fee. We are community-minded and inclined to oblige such a request, but we are concerned about security breaches, given that we are a professional organization and have sensitive data on our network to protect, etc.

Can you advise as to the potential consequences?

I can recommend that you use common sense here. If you have private/sensitive data on your network, then common sense says you shouldn’t allow people onto the network unless you trust them or you have proper safeguards in place to protect the data even if someone gets access to your network. Such safeguards–disk encryption, strong passwords, moving the data to a computer that isn’t network accessible, segmenting the network so that only wired computers can get access to data on a server–are all good ideas regardless of whether you operate a public wi-fi network or not.

Further, I doubt that your intermittency issues have any relation to whether your network is password protected or not. Far more likely are sources of interference, which can sometimes be addressed by either (a) moving your access point, or (b) changing the wireless channel of your access point. Putting a password on a network will do nothing to address connectivity issues.

If you are community minded, and part of how you want to provide a service to the community is to provide a free wi-fi network to nearby people, I would recommend you put a proper hotspot online. We can help you out with that, and your neighbors will be able to access your hotspot free and clear of any passwords. Unfortunately, providing a password to a single community member isn’t providing a service to your community, it’s providing a service to a single person.

Get the FCC out of the Gutter

also published at Wireless Community blog

There’s been an interesting discussion on the NYCwireless mailing list over the past few days about the Let There Be Wi-Fi article. Of particular note is a comment made by Alex, who runs Pilosoft, an independent ISP in New York City:

There is such thing as ‘natural monopoly’. Gas lines, water lines, *phone lines and coax lines* are natural monopolies and does not make sense to have multiple companies competing with each other. Now, putting *content* over those lines is definitely *not* a natural monopoly. Broadband is definitely *not* a natural monopoly.

The distinction that Alex draws between the physical infrastructures and the information services provided over those infrastructures is an important one. Its not new; In the earlier days of dial-up ISPs, phone companies would provide the physical infrastructures, and the internet was delivered over the phone lines as an information service. Many phone companies became ISPs as well, but because the modem technologies were so simple, the differentiation between two ISPs or between an independent ISP and the phone company ISP came down to additional services.

Nowadays, the separation between physical infrastructure and internet service is no less distinct, merely obscured. The technology has advanced, but its still the same basic setup. There’s a physical cable coming into your home, and there are services that are delivered on top of that wire (the internet often being one of those services). The only difference is that cable and telephone companies have spent the last few years creating a smokescreen so that we, as consumers, have a hard time seeing where that line is drawn.

The cabling, as it was before, and as it will continue to be, is a natural monopoly just like electrical, gas, and water. Phone and cable companies don’t want to admit this fact, because that means they will properly be subject to other regulations. But let’s call a spade a spade. We don’t have (and don’t want) lots of different companies digging up our streets to install yet more wires. It serves us no good to go through this wasteful process. We are better served by having one (or at most a couple) of different wires that are run across a community and into our homes, and opening up those lines to competitors who can provide internet, video, and phone services.

But the FCC has confused the situation, being blinded by the cable and phone companies’ smoke screens. They’ve removed the regulations that ensured competition on the phone lines, and they failed to establish similar regulation for cable lines. They view internet and video as information services, which cannot be regulated. But in order to have information services, you need to have widespread physical infrastructure on which to delivery those services. And because of the requirements and cost of building this infrastructure, the general public is best served by only building this infrastructure ones (or maybe only a few times).

Perhaps we’ve been approaching this problem from the wrong direction. This isn’t the FCC’s domain. They don’t belong in the gutter, digging ditches and laying wire. They belong watching our airwaves, and dealing with services at the service level.

We need to be pushing for these private natural monopolies to be treated as such.

Susan Crawford, Assistant Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law, speaks from a similar point of view, maintaining that “broadband access companies that cover the waterfront (literally — are interfering with our navigation online) should be confronted with the power of the state to protect entry into this self-owned commons, the internet.”

So, how do we work to get these lines to be recognized by the federal or local governments as the monopolies they are? Where do we start with respect to such regulation?

I don’t know the answer, but would love to hear ideas.

Testimony from December 12 New York City Council Hearing

NYCwireless’ testimony before the New York City Council’s Technology in Government Committee at December 12 hearing in support of Int. No. 625-A, a local law to establish a permanent broadband advisory committee in order to assess the feasibility of using municipal resources to facilitate universal access to broadband technologies and telecommunications and information services in New York.

Good afternoon. My name is Laura Forlano and I am pleased to be here today to testify before the New York City Council’s Technology in Government Committee on behalf of NYCwireless, a non-profit organization that advocates for and enables the growth of free, public wireless networks, in support of Int. No. 625-A, a local law to establish a permanent broadband advisory committee in order to assess the feasibility of using municipal resources to facilitate universal access to broadband technologies and telecommunications and information services in New York.

Over the past four years, NYCwireless has been active in the deployment of free, public wireless networks in over ten New York City parks and open spaces through partnerships with local parks organizations and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). NYCwireless has played an invaluable role in establishing the idea of public hotspots within public spaces within a City. Indeed, NYCwireless’ groundbreaking ideas and work first started this movement. By working in 2001 with local businesses, NYCwireless established Tompkins Square Park as the first Wireless Park in New York City. In 2002, NYCwireless brought this idea to the Bryant Park Conservancy, and was successful in creating the City’s and the Nation’s most visible and popular Wireless Park. We have also created community engagement programs that take advantage of wireless networks in Manhattan, such as our wireless arts festival, Spectropolis. NYCwireless is an all-volunteer organization with seven (7) board members, five (5) special interest working groups and approximately sixty (60) active members.

As a small non-profit organization that relies on volunteers to do its work, NYCwireless has confronted the difficulty of bringing wireless broadband projects to New Yorkers first-hand for a number of reasons. The technology itself is one of the simpler parts of the equation. Much more difficult are the identification of projects that address critical socio-economic problems and improve the lives of New Yorkers, the creation of an overarching vision for our projects and the development of a strategy to implement our vision using the latest technologies.

We believe that a similar challenge is facing the city of New York with regards to the future of broadband technology. Over the past two years, we have followed the Technology in Government Committee’s oversight hearings with great interest and believe that the establishment of a permanent broadband advisory committee is one positive step towards creating the necessary comprehensive vision and holistic strategy necessary for improving the socio-economic future of New York by using cutting-edge technologies and mobilizing community resources.

We believe that the advisory committee can play a leading role in increasing competition in the market for broadband provision and insuring the availability of affordable broadband options for small businesses, non-profit organizations and under-served areas. We believe that this problem can only be solved by the active involvement of municipal government in stimulating competition in telecommunication infrastructure. Competition can come in the form of municipally owned open access telecommunication infrastructure (such as the Philadelphia project), non-profit projects (such as NYCwireless, BIDs, parks organizations) or private sector initiatives.

With respect to the specifics of Int. No. 625-A, we would like to urge that “municipal resources” be interpreted broadly to include a wide range of the city’s resources such as physical assets (light poles, rooftops), financial assets, and, most importantly, human assets such as community and non-profit organizations. Community organizations such as NYCwireless can play an even greater role in improving New York’s socio-economic future from the bottom-up with the support of a clear vision, a comprehensive strategy and available municipal resources.

NYCwireless looks forward to working with the Technology in Government committee, city agencies, other non-profit organizations and the private sector in order to improve the lives of all New Yorkers using the best available technologies to address our city’s socio-economic needs and challenges. Thus, we urge that the City Council pass Int. No. 625-A to establish a permanent broadband advisory committee. Thank you very much.

The End-User Cost of Muni-networks

Also published on the Wireless Community blog

I’m a big fan of what’s going on in Philadelphia, but this article in The Philadelphia Inquirer has me thinking that maybe all of this talk about the end user cost of muni-networks is, in part, wrong.

One way that most Community Wireless networks are different from other broadband networks is that they view their wireless service as supplemental. In other words, NYCwireless wouldn’t ever expect to be the only Internet service that a person uses. This is true for most CWNs, expecially those in urban places.

As such, our pricing models expect that usage of the networks is an add on to a user’s already expensive broadband connection. This is one way that commercial Wi-Fi is different, and why so many people are unhappy about the high prices. Is the $30 per month (or thereabout) price of a T-Mobile Wi-Fi a supplemental service fee, or is it a primary broadband connection fee?

I already pay over $100 per month for my DSL at home. I’m not going to pay another $20 or $30 per month just to get Wi-Fi periodically. And neither are most other people (discount the road-warrior types who’s businesses pay for their supplemental internet fees).

We need a more sophisticated pricing model. And this is what bothers me about the Philadelphia prices. The Philly network imagines that it is the primary broadband connection for people living in the city. But what about all of the people who already have $40-$60 home DSL and cablemodems? Wireless Philadelphia should make sense for them as well, except they won’t really use it at home, just when they are away from home.

I think this is critical for the project’s success. What is the right price for supplemental Internet? I personally would pay about $5 total for all other broadband I would use outside of my home. I suspect that this pricing is about what other people would be willing to pay as well. This type of pricing model respects existing broadband service, and offers the opportunity for Philadelphia to capture more of the market. It also acknowledges that one company/organization can’t solve the universal broadband issue by itself.

Who says that I should only have 1 broadband connection? Telcos, cable companies, WISPs, and any other broadband provider must embrace this view of the market, because its the way things will be in the future.

Bruce Fein's New York Times Letter to the Editor

Bruce Fein, a former general counsel for the FCC under President Reagan, published a letter to the editor in today’s New York Times. He claims that Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent column “wrongly chastises New York for neglecting to emulate the citywide wireless networks in rural Oregon” due to far greater cost of deploying Wi-Fi in populated urban areas.

While Mr. Fein is correct in stating that Wi-Fi in New York would be more costly than in, say, Philadelphia (as I have written previously in this blog 1, 2), his claim that it would cost $1 billion is way off the mark. Yes, New York City recently put out an RFP for a $1 billion wireless network for police, fire, and emergency rescue use. This network is intended to be private and secure, and won’t likely use Wi-Fi (it certainly won’t use Wi-Fi in the normal 802.11a/b/g bands).

From where is Mr. Fein getting his $1 billion figure? According to JupiterResearch, the cost of building and maintaining a municipal wireless network is $150,000 per square mile over five years. Sascha Meinrath of CUWiN claims that a network with a density of 142 nodes per square mile would cost about $49,700. If we take these as a low and a high estimate, we wind up with a total cost for NYC between $15 million and $50 million. Even if we triple the JupiterResearch cost estimates, we don’t come even close to Mr. Fein’s number.

Furthermore, Mr. Fein’s claim that such a network would be entirely Wi-Fi is mis-informed. Such a network should use whatever wireless and wired technologies are appropriate. Wi-Fi happens to be the best solution for getting internet access over the “last 100 yards”. As for competition, New York could be the city that encourages the most R&D in wireless, if only the City created the right environment, perhaps by opening up more lightpole franchises at an affordable rate.

All of this doesn’t address the most important issue: only about 35% of New Yorkers have broadband, and only 10% of low-income families in New York City have broadband. And this is the most connected city in the country! We should be demanding that the Mayor and everyone else in our City Government address this situation! Wi-Fi, WiMax, Wi-whatever—wireline or wireless—it doesn’t matter. In fact, any viable solution will make use of all of these technologies, as well as some others that aren’t even released yet.

We shouldn’t look at this problem as being so large and costly that we can’t address it. We can start small. NYCwireless and its partners have brought free Wi-Fi to many City parks and other public spaces. And we continue to bring public Wi-Fi to low income buildings and other neighborhoods. Working together, we (and every single New Yorker) can make a difference.

Why Mesh-based Wireless Networks Are Ideal for New York

Mesh networks are wireless networks, based on Wi-Fi technology, where each wireless “node” or “access point” connects with a number of other wireless nodes. Information flows from node to node, winding up either at its destination or the internet in general. Internet connections, in a mesh-based network, are provided by one or more nodes that connect to the internet directly (referred to as “backhaul”).

Robust and reliable, mesh wireless systems offer multiple points of connection to the network and no central tower. Mesh users can bypass obstacles like hills and trees by using different signal paths. Mesh networks are easily expandable at very low cost, and they have no single point of failure. Mesh networks also feature shorter distances between nodes, which means each antenna can broadcast at lower power, creating less interference and allowing more users to communicate simultaneously.” (from http://www.freepress.net/wifi/guide2.php)

The benefits of mesh technology are many:

  • self-organized, dynamic routing and connection
  • little or no centralized configuration
  • each node is interchangeable with every other node
  • overlapping wireless coverage areas ensure that no node is a point of failure
  • no wires are necessary, as the network is entirely wireless
  • organic build-out of the entire network is possible
  • multiple separate networks can be built independently and grow into a single cohesive network
  • redundant paths to backhaul
  • easy/seamless addition of additional backhaul

Continue reading Why Mesh-based Wireless Networks Are Ideal for New York

Wi-Fi and the Digital Divide

The Digital Divide is a topic for great discussion for the past decade or two, since computers and information systems have permeated our society and culture. Many people have proposed solutions, and many have helped address some of the Divide’s many components. It is spoken about often, and has been categorized and explained from many angles. Fundamentally, it refers to the chasm that exists in our society between the have’s and the have-not’s, and about the inability for the have-not’s to join the ranks of the have’s. It is, in part, a problem of economics.

So how does Wi-Fi fit in?

The Digital Divide, in part, can be solved by proper application of technology. Indeed, technology is the silver bullet for the Digital Divide that has been trumpeted by politicians and corporations alike. But in reality, it is more about the use of technology, and not the acquisition of it. This point is often confused by many who talk about the bridge that it can help form. Technology must be both affordable, to address economic problem, as well as assistive in its use in helping people better themselves.

Continue reading Wi-Fi and the Digital Divide