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WiFi activists on free Web crusade

By Pia Heikkila

No bills, no wires: WiFi offers a new way of surfing the Web
No bills, no wires: WiFi offers a new way of surfing the Web

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Thousands of tech enthusiasts across Europe are setting up wireless communities to get free Internet access.

Groups -- from one family to several hundred people -- share a wireless network connection which they say is as free as air.

The ideology behind the movement is to free people from their monthly Internet access charges.

One free Internet movement is a UK-based collective called Consume, led by James Stevens, who says anyone can set up their own open access point and help build wireless communities.

"Anyone with a little techie knowledge can buy a simple base station for just few hundred pounds which acts as the co-coordinator for a wireless network.

"Then any user wanting to access this needs a card that links your laptop to the network which can be bought for as little as 100 euros."

Wireless networks use microwave radio adapters, known as WiFis, which can be arranged to form a continuous "cloud" of connectivity. This loop goes by the pan-European name "elektrosmog."

Any laptop fitted with a special wireless network card will automatically search and connect to this "cloud" within hundreds of metres.

Enthusiasts who run the communities often use chalk symbols on the streets to mark the location of the nearest access point so anyone can join in. This is often called "warchalking."

Groups are also keen to show others how to share Net connections, software and experiences of wireless networks.

Stevens adds: "Free networks are owned and constructed by their users where no vested interests of commercial models can survive. This is not to say they will be free of costs but the profiteering motive will not be present."

The WiFi community says the practice is legal because it uses free airwaves.

In San Francisco, WiFi groups are using coffee shops to offer wireless access alongside the tall skinny lattes. You can surf the Net without having to plug into a phone point or negotiating a maze of cables connected to a PC.

Stevens says WiFi in Europe has more local flavour. "The U.S. models are focussed on the redistribution of commercial Internet services with access points attached to broadband provisions into public parks, squares and campuses.

A broad church: More and more people are logging on
A broad church: More and more people are logging on

"In Europe the model of network access has been used between local people, organisations and institutions where Internet access is just one of the services on offer. Many European communities offer local file sharing, streaming media, mail and Web sites to their wireless users."

Some enthusiasts predict that if enough WiFi clouds join together, they could replace the much hyped third generation (3G) network, the expensive mobile frequencies bought by many European telcos.

These 3G networks promise fast Internet access anywhere, anytime. Sceptics say existing WiFi technology can provide most of the functionality of the 3G at a fraction of the cost.

American professor Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT media lab, is one of the most eager proponents of WiFi, recently condemning the technology behind 3G mobile phones as "just not good enough."

"There are not enough features to make the change from GSM (the current mobile network) worthwhile for consumers," he said in an interview with U.S. magazine Wired.

He says he wishes the industry "could just skip 3G. I wish we could just give the money back, but given the amounts involved it's just not possible to persuade governments to do that."

Stevens says 3G is yet to prove itself: "A huge amount of marketing and cash speculation rides on the success of 3G and relies on increasing customer spending and a fresh round of overcharging for questionable quality and unknown demand for service."

But WiFi also has its problems. It is not designed for voice communication and coverage is patchy, according to Richard Dineen, senior analyst at UK-based consultancy Ovum.

"I think WiFi will act as a compliment to 3G. Its success is heavily dependent on people setting up good business models as it is more expensive than most people think."

The frequency is already overloaded with cordless phones, microwave ovens and streetlights, adds Dineen. And he says WiFi enthusiasts forget that running a public network is difficult.

"Setting up a network at home is very different from setting up a public one. You need a good network management layer, billing service and user software so they don't hog all the available bandwidth."



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