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Netizens Sans Frontiers

February 26, 2009

public wifi

The community-minded BC Wireless Network Society has been facilitating free municipal wi-fi access in Vancouver by recruiting and offering support to volunteers to sponsor wireless access points, or “hotspots.”

Participants, often proprietors of cafés, adopt a “node,” or a wireless Internet connection to create public access. The wireless group sets up a gateway where users log in. Ideally, the node is one of several in a network, which overlap to create a wireless mesh network. If  one fails, the others will connect spontaneously and keep the hotspot active.  For the technologically inclined who want to learn more about how this works, there are thorough write-ups and diagrams in the Linux Journal and BCWN’s  technical pages.

The City of Vancouver, had put forth an Expressions of Interest request regarding public wi-fi in advance of the 2010 Olympics. Those who assessed the resulting proposals report that the City cannot afford a large-scale wi-fi blanket without exorbitant taxation, and recommends deferral of building a network in time for the 2010 Olympics. Instead, they will leave it to existing networks and let private providers access the city network in order to build interim networks.

In fact, small networking groups have succeeded in cities around the world. Secure and practical community wi-fi was first realized in 2004, when Montreal’s non-profit Isle Sans Fil innovated a Linux-based server technology called NoCat, and ended up with something called Wifidog. This system allowed an inexpensive wireless signal that would require a universal login, providing virus protection while preserving users’ personal information. Wifidog has since become a convention upon which groups worldwide have built on.

Since then, the other Canadian organization to pioneer homegrown municipal wireless is Wireless Toronto, who facilitated Toronto’s first “wi-fi mile” hotspot.

While Vancouver ponders whether it is worth building a wi-fi infrastructure, non-profits are gradually building connections that mesh with existing infrastructure, to create what may eventually be a citywide free net. As community networks typically have slower connections and support than paid access, ISPs will still have a market for a long time. Wi-fi groups are not trying to become ISPs; they want to take existing wireless access, and help make it available to the public in public.

Join the BCWEN army to sponsor a node, to do volunteer tech-support or to donate.

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