Anietie Ekanem was commiserating with a friend four years ago about his job in high-tech product management. The Stanford computer grad was already running his own consulting firm, but he wanted to do something more fulfilling. When his friend mentioned an article he’d read about wireless Internet access in Africa, Ekanem thought, “Oh my God! ‘Wireless Africa’ … that’s a perfect company.”
There was just one glitch: The Rhode Island native didn’t know the first thing about Africa or wireless Internet access.
His parents had emigrated from Nigeria 35 years earlier, but Ekanem had few personal ties to their homeland. Still, applying his high-tech background to a philanthropic project appealed to him. With two partners, he founded Wireless Africa. Progress has been slow, but the company is working toward setting up wireless hotspots at universities in Kenya, training students to install and maintain the system, and trying to enable distance learning by students and nurses.
Once Ekanem began educating himself about wireless access, he met the director of SFLan, a leader in California’s tight-knit community of wireless proponents. During that meeting, Ekanem had another epiphany: “If I’m doing this overseas, why not do it in my own backyard?”
After all, Ekanem didn’t need to travel to Africa to find an unfulfilled need. Internet access was also scarce in West Oakland.
Today, just a few months later, Ekanem is providing his neighbors with free wireless access. He is part of a nationwide movement of individuals and municipalities looking to follow the lead of cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco in offering free or cheap public access to high-speed Internet service.
Propelled by affordable, standardized technology and a proliferation of companies offering to set up such systems for free, these pioneers seek to provide service to residents who can’t afford the $30 to $50 monthly fees charged by the major high-speed access providers. More than four hundred US cities have already deployed or are in the process of deploying some type of wireless network, according to the nonprofit media reform organization Free Press. That number is growing rapidly.
In the East Bay, cities such as Concord, Hayward, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek are launching or planning on launching citywide wi-fi, which is short for wireless fidelity. And just a few weeks ago, 36 Bay Area cities including Fremont, Newark, Palo Alto, and San Jose jointly unveiled a plan to blanket a 1,500-square-mile area, reaching 2.4 million people across four counties. The Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force aims to provide a free or low-cost service, with the possibility of including a faster, paid subscription.
But other cities have dragged their feet on the issue, whether due to apathy, wariness of past failures, fears of litigation, or concern about dimly documented health risks. While interest is gaining momentum, legislative challenges in Washington, DC, and local city halls pose a variety of hurdles. And even the movement’s pioneers face increasingly serious opposition from existing high-speed access providers.
On a gray day in early March, about twenty people lingered outside the Boys and Girls Club at 24th and Myrtle streets in West Oakland. Around the corner, Anietie Ekanem was settling into his modest new two-story house. His living room had the sparse decorations of a tidy bachelor: clean and no frills.
From the outside, West Oakland might seem an unlikely locale for the next wireless revolution. But to Ekanem, that’s exactly the point. “There’s a definite need in this community around access, local community content, and being able to leverage skills and teach people,” he says. “If the incumbents wanted to do that, great. But they’re not. So it leaves a huge space for a project like this to come here and do well.”
Today, up on his roof, a twelve-by-six-inch transmitter beams free Internet service to his neighbors in a roughly four-block radius. Ekanem’s mentor from SFLan, Ralf Muehlen of Berkeley, helped build the transmitter, which cost about $1,000. The transmitter redistributes $50-a-month DSL from one of the few Internet service providers that lets its subscribers share bandwidth. Most standard DSL and cable offerings, including those from AT&T and Comcast, have provisions in their contracts to make such sharing illegal. But some companies actually encourage it.
Ekanem’s transmitters use unlicensed bandwidth to transmit the signal, the same frequency used by microwave ovens, but at a vastly lower power. They can send a signal up to ten miles from one rooftop box to another, all linked in what is known as a “mesh network.” From transmitter to laptop, the signal carries about four blocks, preferably via sightlines, although it can travel through one or two walls. Two more nodes were recently installed at nearby McClymonds High School. Ekanem hopes to set up additional antennas on other buildings, such as the Oakland Technology Exchange on 14th Street.
About 25 people in the neighborhood use his network so far. One of them, Filbert Street resident Hillary David, uses it to check her e-mail every day. Before Ekanem set up his network, David, a stagehand who is remodeling her house, didn’t have Internet access. “It’s just a kind, generous thing to do for your neighbors,” she says.
Price continues to be a major obstacle for people who lack access to high-speed Internet service. But Ekanem believes it doesn’t have to be that way. “I kind of feel the Internet is free,” he says. “And you have major corporations who are selling it to you piecemeal. So why not, if you have great bandwidth out there, be able to distribute that relatively inexpensively? You don’t need $29 to $30 a month. You don’t need to be locked into a contract for X number of years. Look, get this out there to the people and get it to them now.”
Ekanem is not the only person who feels this urgency. Sydney Levy, program director of the nonprofit media reform group Media Alliance, says several factors have combined to create the current momentum behind community and municipal wireless projects. “There is more of a realization that we need to close the digital divide,” he says. “Now, for the first time, we have a technology that may make it possible, because the technology is not expensive. Years ago, one could talk about access to the Internet as a luxury. Over time, we’re realizing how important it is as far as getting education, jobs, and health care. It’s no longer a luxury; it’s essential.”
Increasingly essential though it may be, statistics show that the United States is falling behind in broadband penetration. A report released last December by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the United States has fallen to twelfth place based on broadband penetration — behind countries such as Iceland, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Denmark. And the growth rate of new broadband users is slowing, from 50 percent of households in December 2004 up to just 53 percent in May 2005, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report.
The spread of wireless services could increase the penetration of broadband in the United States by ending the duopoly of the high-speed market, which is dominated locally by Comcast (the latest name of the cable company that once bore the AT&T brand) and AT&T (the latest name of the phone company that once bore the SBC brand). But in other markets, the introduction of wireless is forcing them to lower their prices. “DSL used to cost $50 in San Francisco; now it’s $30,” Muehlen says. “In Philadelphia, they’re further along in their wireless project — their DSL price dropped to $15. You will see a similar thing here. If wireless would go away, the prices would go up again.”
Ekanem’s own agenda is broader than just spreading affordable Internet access. He’s hoping to hook people up with cheap computers, train them in their use, and create a portal site to connect residents to health, education, and city services. For example, he envisions seniors looking up class schedules at the West Oakland Senior Center, parents learning about contamination at a nearby park, or African-American women reading up on a recent spike in chlamydia cases. Ekanem is still formulating his business plan, and says he may eventually charge a few dollars a month for service. For now, he’s focused mainly on getting the project up and running, and using funds from Wireless Africa to pay for the pilot.
These are all worthy goals to Bruce Buckelew, an adviser to Ekanem whose Oakland Technology Exchange has donated about 6,500 computers to Oakland public school families and offers dial-up for about $7 a month. But while Buckelew believes universal access is a great idea, he isn’t sure that the responsibility should fall to individuals. “Should it be done by government or private industry?” he asks. “I don’t claim to understand the arguments. I would just like to see it done.”
Oakland certainly isn’t short of people trying to help it. As San Francisco has attracted national attention for its interest in wi-fi, at least eight unsolicited vendors also have approached Oakland. One of those, Mountain View-based MetroFi, already operates networks in Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale, and recently clinched deals with Portland, Oregon, and Aurora, Illinois. MetroFi provides the service at no cost to the cities in exchange for a one-inch ad banner at the top of its Web browser. The company pays the city $36 a year for each light pole it uses, or barters in exchange for an ad-free, secure network for city staff.
When MetroFi started in 2002, it offered paid wi-fi service to individual subscribers. But as it began building networks, the startup cost was so low that it became apparent to CEO Chuck Haas that a cityside model based on advertising alone would be a “vibrant business model.” And by eliminating the need to sell individual subscriptions, it could avoid hefty marketing costs, too.
MetroFi representatives have since talked to nearly every city in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. “We don’t have too many people not interested,” Haas says. “It’s a benefit to the city, there’s no taxpayer dollars, and the residents get free wireless Internet. From the product development standpoint, local businesses have a way to reach customers while they’re online.” Haas says it costs his company about $50,000 to cover a city square mile, just a fraction of what it costs to carry fiber to a home.
Hayward is one East Bay city hoping to cement a deal with MetroFi in the coming weeks. After starting out with a free wireless node at city hall that city employees set up for just $2,000 two years ago, Hayward is now hoping to contract with MetroFi in the next year on a free citywide network, says deputy city manager and technology director Clancy Priest. Although Hayward doesn’t have the strongest business base for MetroFi’s advertising model, Ben Zifrony, the company’s vice president of sales and business development, sees the city as a strategic move for its presence in the East Bay. And with no cost to the taxpayer, it could be a good deal for the city, Priest says.
Meanwhile, as city officials hammer out the details with MetroFi, the Hayward Unified School District has already launched its own free wi-fi network. With $1.9 million in funding from the telecom giant Nortel, on May 4 the district began mounting antennas at city public schools and on nearby light poles to cover a three-mile radius around campuses. The network is password-protected and designed for use only by public school students.
Unfortunately, not all of them have access to wireless-enabled computers. One such student is Mycol Armani, a neatly dressed and polite tenth-grader who attends Hayward High. Armani says he thinks about half his peers have access to the Internet at home. But while he has a computer at home, he doesn’t have Internet access and doesn’t even use the computer he has.
Armani uses computers at school, a friend’s house, or the public library when they have to do research for a class project, but they’re limited to thirty-minute intervals at the library. He says he would try and get a wireless-enabled computer once the school district provided wireless for free. “When you’re at home,” he reasons, “you’re in that comfort zone.”
Home is not the comfort zone for all students, however. A couple of years ago, Bob Glaze asked students at East Oakland’s Havenscourt Middle School whether the city should make a priority of giving them computers. Their response surprised Glaze, who has worked for the city for 33 years and served as its chief technology officer since 2003. “When I go to the library, there is no economic difference [between me] and the kid next to me,” he recalled one clearly disinterested student telling him. “Nobody knows if I can afford a computer or not.” Others said that owning a computer would make them a target of theft, and that being able to pay for food and electricity was more important. Some said their parents couldn’t even afford a phone line, let alone high-speed Internet access.
So when people started talking to Glaze about wi-fi several months ago, the conversation at Havenscourt came back to him. He recalls wondering how such a network would balance the overall needs of residents. “Consistently, one of things I haven’t seen is people saying, ‘Let’s move forward on wi-fi,'” he says. “There haven’t been a lot of advocates coming forward.”
Oakland also has been slow to embrace wi-fi because of the sour taste left by its first experiment with the technology. In the 1990s, Ricochet Networks set up wireless in several cities across the East Bay, including Oakland. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen invested $300 million in the company, but it was ahead of its time. Subscribers paid $79.95 a month for 128 kilobits per second, about one eighth of the speeds offered today. In exchange for using city light poles, which powered the low-wattage transmitters, Ricochet provided free service to the city’s police and fire departments and facilities. But that all came to a grinding halt when Metricom, Ricochet’s owner, went bankrupt in 2001, leaving its antennas stranded on every other city block in Oakland. The company’s technology was proprietary, making it incompatible with the standards that ultimately emerged. “We tore the cases apart to see if there was a possible use, but no one has found good use,” Glaze says. Most of them were taken down as lightbulbs got changed, but some are still there. “If you go for the first one out of the boat, the next generation coming out has a higher capacity and speed,” he says. “It has to match what the needs are.”
But while Ricochet was a pioneer in a world without standards, today’s standardized wi-fi technology leaves little reason for hesitation.
A couple years ago, Mayor Jerry Brown brought up wireless again and wanted to test the public interest. So Glaze set up the Oakland Hotspot Zone at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Few people use the network today, he says, or even know it exists. Similarly, the Kaiser Center on Lakeside Drive has wi-fi in its lobby, and Jack London Square is in the process of creating its wireless network. “We drop little pebbles and hope the ripples will start spreading out,” says Deborah Acosta of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency. But whether those ripples will ever reach the residents who need it most is far from certain.
Oakland’s initial reluctance to advance beyond such experiments may have had something to do with the grip the city’s incumbent providers of high-speed Internet access have on local politicians. The franchise agreement with Comcast is a lucrative one for the city. Comcast provides several public channels, a fiber infrastructure between government buildings, and pays Oakland about $2 million a year in cable franchise fees, according to Brian Granados, a city inspector and former cable franchise manager.
Against this high-stakes backdrop, it is perhaps inevitable that the economic impact of community wireless has become an issue for incumbent broadband providers. “There are sensitivities and concerns that wireless will have on existing incumbents,” Acosta acknowledges. “We’re moving on a pace that keeps everybody calm. … We don’t want to fight a losing battle.”
At the national level, telecoms have launched a multipronged attack against community wireless. Two bills are threatening cities. The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, introduced by Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) and cosponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), would require local governments to ask incumbent service providers for permission before providing broadband to their constituents. House Bill 2726, introduced by Representative Pete Sessions (R-Texas), would make it illegal for a city to provide its residents with Internet access if a private company already offers such service nearby, regardless of the price. Another Senate bill, the Community Broadband Act of 2005, would counter these moves. Introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) and, ironically, McCain, the bill would allow cities to offer low-cost broadband service and would overturn all state legislation that prohibits it.
Sixteen states have already passed similar laws. California hasn’t seen anything like that yet. In fact, Senate Bill 1803 would change the public utility code to explicitly allow cities to construct wireless networks. In November 2004, just two months after Philadelphia Mayor John Street announced the city would look into providing wi-fi to its residents, Verizon lobbyists helped pass a rewrite of the state’s telecommunications bill, with a hidden provision that gave telecoms the right to block any municipality from offering wi-fi. The mayor eventually negotiated a waiver for Philadelphia, but it sent a clear message.
“Cities have to have the willingness to get into this project because they may end up in a brawl with the telecom companies,” says Levy of Oakland’s Media Alliance. Though no city in California has yet faced a lawsuit over wireless, a legal battle with these powerful telecoms would put cities at their mercy. “It is likely that some cities are holding the tide,” Levy continues. “‘Let me see how it works in San Francisco before getting my feet wet.’ You may have some cities saying, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ … When you do it at the level of city government, you have the ability to cover the whole geography of the city much faster. But the community models are the ones that really, with minimal resources, usually get things going.”
The lesson of San Francisco suggests that even the movement’s pioneers are slow to get from the drawing board to the airwaves. Mayor Gavin Newsom first announced his plan to create free wireless Internet access for SF residents in his October 2004 State of the City address. Last August, the city released its Request for Information and Comment, which was met with responses from 26 companies. Neither Comcast nor AT&T (then SBC) were part of that list. SBC wrote, “Rather than bidding on the project … our response will show you how the current and ongoing efforts of SBC will best meet your community’s needs.” Unconvinced, the city issued a formal request for bids in December, requiring bidders to offer both free access and a higher-speed paid service for cheaper than commercial rates.
Ultimately, six companies issued bids. In April, San Francisco chose a partnership between Google and Earthlink, which offered to build the network for free. But that didn’t make it a done deal. The city still needs to negotiate a draft agreement and secure the approval of six of its eleven supervisors. Even with the mayor’s enthusiasm for wireless, the Google-Earthlink proposal and process are already being questioned by the board of supervisors. Google and Earthlink estimated their initial costs to be between $6 million and $7 million, with an additional investment of $15 million over the next ten years. That amounts to an investment of about $28 per person in San Francisco. But considering that Google and Earthlink intend to charge $20 a month for premium service, some critics wonder why the city couldn’t just bypass the two companies altogether.
Members of Oakland’s city council are carefully watching the situation in San Francisco. “Some members of the council have voiced to me, ‘It’s better to wait and see,'” Glaze says. “Anybody can stand on a soapbox and say, ‘We’re going to provide a free service,’ but what does it really mean? What does ‘free’ mean?”
City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente says the council supports a municipal wi-fi network in Oakland. “We’re going to move on it as soon as possible,” he said, though he didn’t specify when. “We have many challenges and many pressures. It’s not that we don’t try and do everything we can.” De La Fuente said the council is watching San Francisco, but would move on its own accord regardless.
Attitudes appear to have changed recently, around the time that Comcast slapped Oakland with a lawsuit over a labor provision that governed its franchise agreement. The two parties had not negotiated a new agreement since 1998. Two cable company ownership changes and two lawsuits lengthened the negotiations. Last December, they finally came to an agreement, but in February the city council passed an ordinance requiring all companies with franchise agreements with the city to allow their workers to vote for a union via a simplified check-card process. Comcast backed out, and the whole negotiation process is essentially back at square one.
Initially, Oakland intended to collect information from interested vendors. But now Glaze wants to skip this step and request formal proposals by the end of the summer so that the city council could approve one when it returns from summer recess. “Obviously the city feels comfortable to move forward,” Acosta says. “What was an issue in the past isn’t now. Or if it is, we’re just going to move forward and see what happens.”
Desley Brooks was one of the first Oakland council members to propose a citywide wi-fi network after attending a workshop on emergency preparedness. “Supposedly we’re looking at something,” she says. “I haven’t received back any definitive information. I definitely think it’s something that should be a priority. … We can’t just sit forever on our hands and not do anything about it.”
Brooks initiated and secured funding for the renovation of the Rainbow Center on International Boulevard; she thinks its wireless network will make it the city’s first wireless-enabled recreation center. She wasn’t aware of Ekanem’s pilot program, but applauds his effort. “If they’re able to get it off the ground, more power to them,” she says. “Clearly in some communities, people don’t have as much access to computers and technology. The more we can close those divides, the better we are.”
Telecom officials would love to see the whole idea of community wi-fi go away, but they’re careful about how they state that. “To best meet the needs of taxpayers and communities, local government wherever possible should rely on private initiatives and broadband investment by private companies who have the proven expertise in this field,” AT&T’s media relations director Gordon Diamond wrote in an e-mail. “We also believe that in areas that already have wide broadband availability from private enterprise, municipal networks are duplicative and risky. But we would urge cities to let the free market work and focus on more important taxpayer issues.”
But supporters of community wireless note that the free market system has failed those who can’t afford commercial rates, and even some of those who can. Not all residents can even get high-speed Internet because telecoms have little financial incentive to build out to low-density residential areas without commercial customers. In Oakland, for instance, the areas of Elysian Fields, Golf Links Road, upper Skyline Boulevard, the Oakland Hills, parts of Temescal, and East Oakland all have complained about lack of access to DSL, according to Glaze. And Glaze says not all areas have access to cable, either. Even in neighborhoods served by the telecoms, supporters say wi-fi would be unlikely to infringe upon their commercial market since the speed is slower than DSL or cable.
Telecoms also argue that not only are cities ill equipped to provide wireless, the networks themselves are vulnerable. “Wi-fi networks, by their nature, are less secure, less reliable, and have less carrying capacity than wired networks,” remarked Andrew Johnson, vice president of communications for Bay Area Comcast. “The majority of folks would say a wired solution is more preferred.”
Different security concerns have motivated other East Bay cities to enter the wireless arena. For Concord, which recently launched its own wi-fi network, wireless is a tool to help cope with municipal staffing cuts and impending emergencies.
“The way budgets have been with local governments, we’re trying to do more with less,” says city Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister, an active supporter of the project. “Our staff certainly isn’t growing.” One solution was to provide wireless access to city employees who work in the field, such as police officers and inspectors, to allow them to file paperwork without having to return to the office. Pleasant Hill equipped its police with a similar but more expensive system a year ago, but Hoffmeister says Concord didn’t have those funds, so MetroFi’s free advertising model fit the bill.
Wireless also acts as a supplement to the communications backbone for emergency first responders. “You’ve got hard-line phone and two-way radios,” Hoffmeister says. “One thing that came out of 9/11 — what happens when those go down? Having options in which to communicate and not relying on one single system gives you more flexibility and adaptability in emergency situations.” Because wireless transmitters require little power, they can run on a battery or even solar power. In a mesh network — how most wi-fi systems are now set up — if one node no longer works, the rest are still connected to one another.
Hurricane Katrina was a painful example of that. When the storm hit, it knocked out New Orleans’ hard-line phone and cellular networks, leaving operable only the mesh network used to power city surveillance cameras. Since then, the city has expanded the free wi-fi cloud over the business district and the French Quarter, using $1 million in donated equipment. Residents and businesses rely on the network, since phone lines are still down in places. Strangely, the Google-Earthlink proposal in San Francisco does not include a battery backup system because the companies said they do not believe the costs justified the benefits.
Concord’s telecommunications manager first looked into wireless a year ago, and after learning about MetroFi’s free service, the city staff met with the company to gather technical information. A subcommittee gave approval for the pilot program, which was launched on May 1. If all goes well, Concord may pursue a citywide agreement with MetroFi, says Ron Puccinelli, director of Information Technology.
For the pilot, about thirty antennas will go up on city light poles. City workers will get a set of dedicated channels and additional encryption for security. The speed is comparable to what Ekanem is offering in West Oakland.
Concord also was involved in the Ricochet debacle, but that didn’t put a damper on its eagerness to move on wi-fi. Neither did a brief flirtation with a company called FutureWeb. This time around, the city knew what to look for. MetroFi has obtained a bond that would fund removal of its equipment in the event that it should go under. In addition, the company’s technology is standardized, not proprietary, and its agreement is nonexclusive, leaving the market open to competitors.
With Concord moving forward and others following suit, business is snowballing for MetroFi. As more and more cities are becoming wireless, others feel safe to do the same. “There’s no risk to the city in this approach,” Hoffmeister says of MetroFi. “It’s their equipment; it’s their risk.”
In typical fashion, some Berkeley residents are worried about an altogether different type of risk — a supposed cancerous threat called electromagnetic radiation. Two years ago, Councilwoman Dona Spring unsuccessfully opposed a proposal by Sprint to erect a cellular tower on Shattuck Avenue. Now Spring and a group of mostly retired residents who came together to oppose the usage of radio-frequency ID tags by the Berkeley Public Library are opposing wireless for similar reasons. They claim exposure to electromagnetic radiation results in a host of health consequences, including decreased fertility, DNA damage, Alzheimer’s disease, dizziness, nausea, memory loss, disruption of cellular function, and an increase in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which controls the passage of substances from the blood into the central nervous system.
Residents cited a 2005 report by the International Association of Fire Fighters that called for a moratorium on cell-phone towers on fire stations. The report cited a study of six California firefighters who worked in stations with cell towers for up to five years who displayed a variety of symptoms, including slow reaction time, lack of focus, lack of impulse control, and severe headaches.
But SFLan’s Muehlen notes that the electromagnetic radiation from wireless base stations is just a fraction — 1/100th or less — of the output from cellular towers. “We’ve done an experiment for the last hundred years,” he says. “Worldwide, everybody’s exposed to radio frequencies. In almost all cases this is fine. Take your average cell phone: It’s about ten times stronger than the signals we’re putting out with this kind of technology, and the cell phone is right next to your brain. … All the equipment gets tested by the FCC and there are limits that the FCC puts on equipment like this so it can’t be too strong.”
Spring has her own experiment in mind: “Let’s see what happens in San Francisco after fifteen years; see if they fry themselves.”
When Councilman Gordon Wozniak first proposed that the city look into wireless last year, a health report was sanctioned to accompany the investigation, the results of which are due next month.
Wozniak says a wireless network would provide Internet access to residents who can’t afford it and create a communications backup in case of a natural disaster. City IT director Chris Mead, who is compiling the report, says he’s looking at a number of different models, including having the city pay for the whole thing, doing the advertising model that MetroFi proposes, or extending UC Berkeley’s current wireless network for students, Air Bears. The pilot first went up in the fall of 2001 and covers a large portion of the campus.
But Mead is skeptical that a wireless plan will be approved, considering residents’ opposition to cell towers. “I would say there is distinct amount of unease among the city council,” he says. “It’s going to be an issue. How it goes, I don’t want to speculate. It’s Berkeley, so who knows?”
Berkeley retiree Peter Teichner, who also opposed the Sprint cell tower, fears that the strength of the wireless industry will make it nearly impossible to fight these efforts, because the FCC doesn’t allow a city to reject an application based on perceived health or safety standards.
But Councilwoman Spring is confident of victory. “Even if it’s a good idea to have Internet access — which it is — we’d never get all the antennas up because there would be so much opposition,” she says. “As we add more and more electromagnetic radiation, it’s supposed to be hard on the young and prenatal. … Everyone has a cell phone, even I, but I don’t want to be near the antenna.”
All the hubbub over wireless is exactly why Scott Douglass didn’t involve the city when he set up the Berkeley Marina’s “Wifi Coop” two years ago. Douglass, a computer programmer, built the network so he could get Internet access on his sailboat. Currently, boat dwellers have to run a cable from a post in order to get phone service, a process he thinks is absurd. “If you’re in a boat, wireless makes the most sense,” he said in an interview from Connecticut, where he now lives.
Douglass poured $5,000 into expensive equipment and a large antenna that sits on the roof of the Berkeley Yacht Club. The network offers different tiers of service. Out of about four hundred users, about twenty pay $10 to $15 a month for speed faster than DSL or cable. The entire operation costs him $180 a month, and he makes about $230 from the service, leaving him with $50 profit which he hopes to reinvest for more equipment.
Douglass has thought about involving the city to expand the network, but says a city employee advised him not to. “‘Because they’ll take over, and then it wouldn’t happen; it would get lost in city committees,'” Douglass recalls the worker telling him. “I was demotivated from talking to Berkeley city government by people who work for city government.”
And that’s exactly why Ekanem is keeping his project in Oakland low-key, too. “Katrina actually illustrated this,” he says. “You can’t wait for government to do everything.”