Community Wireless

Exploring ideas that matter to communities and wireless networks

Sunday, September 11, 2005

New Blog URL

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Wireless Technology in the Face of Natural Disaster

Katrina has been devastating, both in physical and psychological terms. Mine (and everyone else's) heart goes out to everyone affected by the hurricane and its aftermath.

Once the dust has settled from the initial impact of this natural disaster, many people have begun to notice that of the most important components of our everyday lives, means of communications, have been completely shut down. While we have no answers yet, we do see the need for communications tools to get news and updates to the victims, to get information about the victims to their families, and to help coordinate rescue operations. I'll direct you to Sascha Meinrath's site where he talks about how (at least in part) wireless technologies can help:

I wouldn't suggest that this is a complete answer, but its a start.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Resident Article on Muni-Wireless for New York

The Resident (August 29, 2005 issue, page 21, no permanent link available) reporter Tim Fox interviewed me about municipal wireless and what it might mean in New York. (The original article gets my last name wrong. I've corrected it below.)

Express Lines: The City's High-Tech Experts Debate How To Bring Internet Access to All New Yorkers

By Tim Fox

From Broadway to Battery Park and beyond, Web-savvy users can now log on with ease as low-cost Internet cafés, and free wireless spaces have transformed the city into a green pasture for laptop-wielding New Yorkers.

"We already have an amazing network," says Ted Bongiovanni, a director at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (, an educational technology department at Columbia University. "I see a very wired or wireless future for New York."

At least that’s the ideal. In truth, though broadband — dedicated highspeed Internet access — is available to many New Yorkers, the majority still has problems getting the service, according to Dana Spiegel, the executive director of NYCwireless, a New York group that promotes free wireless Internet access.

"About 60 percent of New York City doesn’t make use of broadband, and 90 percent of low-income people have no broadband," he says. "The reason for this is that most communities have only access to one or two big providers, and broadband can’t be had in New York for less than $50 a month."

Some state and local governments are making broadband a public utility akin to water, sewerage, telephone lines and electricity. The state of Georgia now wires up with Georgia Public Web, a high-speed Internet provider owned by the state’s municipalities. The government of Philadelphia plans to offer free or low-cost Wi-Fi, a popular high-speed Internet wireless service. But city experts don’t see a public utility on New York’s broadband horizon.

NYCwireless is interested in improving broadband accessibility and affordability, but not making it a public utility, Spiegel says.

Bongiovanni compares broadband with human rights, but says government involvement is a bad idea. "For those of us who live with broadband everyday, it is a right. But the city could end up being an investor in a technology that is antiquated."

At the same time, he says, "I don’t think that municipalities should be prohibited from providing these services if they decide that’s what’s best since what they’re doing is repackaging a public good. The industry is asking for a monopoly, and that’s just not right to provide at the expense of citizens."

There are effective models for how government could get involved, says Jason Fox, a senior director at Digital Knowledge Ventures, a unit of Columbia University. "In Singapore, it is a public service and looked at as a way to train the workforce for the future," he says. "Singapore has been one of the leaders of broadband penetration, and people have been looking at that as a model for how governments can be proactive and effective [in promoting broadband access]. At the same time, I am wary of increased city involvement in improving broadband access and would rather see something done at the national level."

Thus, far national and local efforts have been limited. In a March 26, 2004, speech, President George W. Bush promised universal broadband access by 2007 and extended an Internet-tax ban for two years. Meanwhile, a one-year city task force created on April 14 by the City Council committee for technology in government will advise the mayor on making Internet accessible to New Yorkers. But committee chairwoman and task-force member Gale A. Brewer says the city has no plans to make broadband a public utility.

Fox, however, says things might not be so bad after all. "I am not convinced that New York City has a real problem. [We have] the fourth-largest broadband connection in the country," he says. "Sixty-six percent of computer users are connected. That tells me that it is not a major concern. There are much more pressing issues the city has to deal with — ground zero, the state of the schools, the rapidly declining subway infrastructure — to me those are all more important. Broadband would not even rate in the top 10."

China and Japan announce 4G alliance

There is an interesting story at that talks about China and Japan collaborating on 4G.

Here are two countries that have not been big adopters of Wi-Fi and other broadband wireless technologies for internet distribution, and who also are not big promoters of the participatory and two-way culture that has made Wi-Fi and Community Wireless so popular in the Americas and Europe. It will be interesting to see how these two countries develop their own take on broadband wireless. I suspect that, like 3G in Japan, 4G won't be so much about the internet in general, but will be more of a walled garden approach as content is concerned. Its interesting to note that the way that both Japanese cell providers and the Chinese government view content distribution, namely as a channel where media is "approved" or blocked, is very similar.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

New York Post Interview: Cities, Providers War Over Wi-Fi as Utility

The New York Post has an article by Sam Gustin about Wi-Fi as a public utility. I was interviewed about the work NYCwireless has done:
But Executive Director of NYCwireless Dana Spiegel worries that, contrary to perceptions of a connected city, many are left out. "Only 10 percent of low-income families in New York City have access to broadband, because Time Warner and Verizon keep prices for broadband artificially high."

"Just like the grass and the trees and the benches are provided by the city," Spiegel said, "we think that broadband Internet access should be provided as well."

Saturday, August 27, 2005

NYC MTA RFP for Subway Cellular Service

Articles in the New York Times and the New York Daily News announce that the New York City "Metropolitan Transportation Authority began soliciting bids for a 10-year contract that will involve immense technical complexity and probably be worth $50 million to $100 million" (New York Times).

Though not specifically broadband related, this RFP by the MTA is important because it represents the first time that any wireless technology has been embraced by the City's subway system. I think that a planned expansion of cell systems into the subway is an important step in the right direction for New York, though limiting it to cellular technology shows that the MTA doesn't fully "get it".

I've spoken to many people who would spend upwards of 20-30 minutes waiting for a subway train to arrive, especially in stations that are outside of midtown and downtown Manhattan. These people want to be able to use their laptops and PDAs to get work done and to communicate with each other, and Wi-Fi would be the ideal technology for this. An ad-supported Wi-Fi network would complement the existing MTA advertising division.

One thing that I don't get is that if this is meant to address safety and security issues, why the MTA wouldn't want cell phones to be usable inside subway tunnels. Claiming concern about phones being used for remote detonation of bombs is preposterous: When was the last time that a terrorist setup a bomb in New York City, let alone in a subway? There are, frankly, plenty of other wireless technologies that could be used if a terrorist had the inclination.

Of greater concern should be the many times that someone would need assistance while stuck in a subway car halfway between stations, an event that happens at least weekly. Considering how many times the subway breaks down, I would think that the MTA would jump at the chance to give people the convenience of phone use while traveling.

Friday, August 19, 2005

FreePress Report on the Woeful State of Broadband in America

FreePress, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union have released an informative report on how the US is lagging behind the rest of the world with regard to broadband.

In the report, FreePress et. al. take the FCC and Commissioner Martin to task for painting a misleading rosy picture of broadband use and deployment across the US. They highlight a number of important, but often overlooked aspects of how the FCC evaluates broadband deployment (which they are required to do yearly by law):
  • The FCC overstates broadband penetration rates. The FCC report considers a ZIP code covered by broadband service if just one person subscribes. No consideration is given to price, speed or availability of that connection throughout the area.

  • The FCC misrepresents exactly how many connections are "high-speed." The FCC defines "high-speed" as 200 kilobits per second, barely enough to receive low-quality streaming video and far below what other countries consider to be a high-speed connection.

  • The United States remains 16th in the world in broadband penetration per capita. The United States also ranks 16th in terms of broadband growth rates, suggesting our world ranking won't improve any time soon. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay 10 to 25 times more than broadband users in Japan.

  • Despite FCC claims, digital divide persists and is growing wider. Broadband adoption is largely dependent on socio-economic status. In addition, broadband penetration in urban and suburban in areas is double that of rural areas.

  • Reports of a broadband "price war" are misleading. Analysis of "low-priced" introductory offers by companies like SBC and Comcast reveal them to be little more than bait-and-switch gimmicks.

  • The FCC ignores the lack of competition in the broadband market. Cable and DSL providers control almost 98 percent of the residential and small-business broadband market. Yet the FCC recently eliminated "open access" requirements for DSL companies to lease their lines, rules that fostered the only true competition in the broadband market.

I think one of the most important findings of this report is something I've been talking about for a while, namely the misleading pricing that cable/telco companies have been promoting. Also important is the report's assertion that there is no real competition in the broadband market, and that wireless and satellite broadband should even be considered anything but a fringe part of the market. All of the findings in the report are based on published facts, many of them provided by the FCC. Every statement FreePress makes cites the relevant source for information.

If you read one thing this week, make it this report!
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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Consumers Still Don't Understand Wi-Fi Potential

In-Stat, a market research firm, released a report stating that consumers still don't understand the potential of Wi-Fi:
"Consumer electronics vendors have a challenge to educate consumers about Wi-Fi and to overcome the perception that Wi-Fi is simply a data networking technology," In-Stat analyst Norm Bogen said in a statement. "In-Stat believes the benefits to consumers of Wi-Fi connectivity in consumer electronics devices are significant enough to build a major market segment over the next five years."

Those of you who are readers of this blog and supporters of Community Wireless groups know that the potential for Wi-Fi lies in its ability to break down barriers between the people living in a local community. It is a fundamentally social technology, especially when used in public spaces. NYCwireless has worked hard to spread this view, especially through the events we hold at our parks, like Spectropolis.
I think its important for all of us that support Community Wireless to work on educating the general public.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Students Work on Singapore Community Wireless

I was recently contacted by a group of students from Raffles Junior College in Singapore, asking about NYCwireless. They are interested in bringing public wireless networking to the people of Singapore, and I support them completely. We need more students working on Community Wireless.

Their questions, and my responses:
Dear Sir/Mdm,
We, students from the Raffles Junior College, thank you for agreeing to lend us your precious time to fill in our email interview.

Since setting up of the wireless service, just exactly how popular is this service since you started it in terms of average daily users?

NYCwireless has helped create dozens of public hotspots with partners throughout Manhattan. Some of our most popular parks, like Bryant Park, Union Square Park, City Hall Park, and the South Street Seaport see hundreds of users per day.

What are some of the feedbacks(positive and negative) you have got from the members of the public?

The best feedback we get is that people use our hotspots. Most users don’t even contact us about their usage.

We have held a number of events at our hotspots, including educational sessions about Wi-Fi and big Arts Festivals. Spectropolis ( was incredibly successful, and drew thousands of people from around New York and around the country (some even internationally).

This is a non-profit organization. How do you pay for the cost of setting up this service? Do you have the government funding the organization?

All of our hotspots are funded by partner organizations. For example, the hotspots that are located in Downtown Manhattan are sponsored by the Alliance for Downtown New York, a Business Improvement District company. Some of our personal hotspots are set up and run by individual volunteers. We have some funding through personal donations to NYCwireless, but no formal funding arrangements.

What are the costs of set up and maintenance like?

A public park hotspot costs on the order of a few $1000’s. The internet is brought in via a local ISP at a cost of about $100/month. The hardware costs only about $500-$1000.

Is this service available 24 hours?

Yes. All of our hotspots are online all day. Some even operate all year round (it gets very cold in NYC in the middle of February!).

What are the problems the organization face in implementing the service?

Some of the difficulties include getting access to surrounding buildings to mount the wireless hardware, and promoting the availability of the wireless service. We have a great record of accomplishment with our deployments, which rarely need any maintenance.

Following the success of this project, what are the impacts that it has on the people and economy?

As one of the first Community Wireless Network, and one of the most visible, we believe that our work has paved the way for an entire movement of people. We have generated a significant amount of press (and still do), which has led to many people learning about Community Wireless, and the possibilities of public Wi-Fi. We also work with other organizations around the country, like Free Press and the Consumer’s Union to promote awareness and deployment of affordable wireless broadband in local communities. Some of our work in New York City has involved bringing free Wi-Fi to underprivileged and underserved residents.

What do you think of our idea of trying to provide a similar service to the working public of Singapore?

We whole-heartedly support and encourage you to undertake this project. We would be happy to help you in any way we can. We also encourage you to make use of all of the wonderful Open Source tools created by Community Wireless Groups around the world, from CUWiN’s (Urbana, Illinois, USA) wireless mesh software, to IleSansFil’s (Montreal, Canada) WifiDog Hotspot portal management system, to our (NYCwireless) Pebble Linux hotspot operating system, to’s (Berlin, Germany) Freifunk Firmware for the Linksys WRT54G.

Thank you for your contribution and help.

Jacinta, Lionel, Amy and YuGai

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bruce Fein's New York Times Letter to the Editor

also published at

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.