March 2, 2004

Experimental free Wi-Fi LAN gaining momentum in SF

Author: Chris Preimesberger

San Francisco has made its share of alternative-type news lately. In addition to being the world center for same-sex marriage -- at least for a while -- it's also vying to become the center for alternative, independent Wi-Fi Internet service. To that end, say hello to SFLan.

SFLan is an experimental community wireless project started at the non-profit, founded seven years ago by San Franciscan Web entrepreneur Brewster Kahle. The idea, which has been in the alpha stage for 18 months, is to provide immediate Internet access whenever one opens a laptop or turns on a connected handheld device at any location within a designated geographical area. Free of charge. And not just so-so access -- fast access.

Setup is FCC-friendly

AOL-Yahoo, AT&T, Comcast, SBC, and myriad others ISPs can't be pleased about this development, but there's nothing they can do about it. The network, using donated bandwidth, is perfectly FCC-friendly.

SFLan is purposely staying within the boundaries of the city of San Francisco, and it is starting small. The network is built upon independent, daisy-chained, high-gain antennas and rooftop boxes that do two things: a) point directly at the nearest neighboring network box -- or to the main power antenna atop San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco -- to hook into a network connection; and b) take the connection and spread it around in all directions, so that the next neighboring box -- or connected device -- can hook up.

The little network is up to 27 nodes at the moment and hoping to keep adding them through word of mouth and stories such as this. The goal is to build a city-size network. "We're hoping to get enough attention to earn some grant money," said engineer Tim Pozar, founder of the non-profit Bay Area Research Wireless Network (BARWN), which is dedicated to extending technology for social and educational purposes. BARWN and SFLan are separate but parallel projects; BARWN provides technical expertise, SFLan handles marketing, sales, and overall strategy.

"What we're doing now is lighting up a number of blocks, something we're calling a NAN, or Neighborhood Area Network," Posar said.

Starting small

SFLan has a long way to go to cover the entire city, which at the 2000 census reported a population of just under 700,000. "This is a return to the way the Internet used to be: You own your equipment, I own my equipment, and we connect to each other. Hence, we do not have to ask a large corporation for what we can do with our network. If this works, we would like to spread this technology near and far," Kahle says on his Web site.

Networking consultants Pozar and partner Matt Peterson designed the hardware, and SFLan is building and selling the boxes. Inside each box is an off-the-shelf 802.11 network card powered by a single-board computer running either FreeBSD 5.2.1 (for the do-it-yourself boxes) or Pebble Linux (for the SFLan boxes). However, rather than creating traditional short-distance wireless hot spots like those found in Starbuck's or McDonald's, Pozar and Peterson's boxes are designed expressly for long-distance (up to 2 miles), outdoor applications.

"You can buy one of the boxes from SFLan for about $200, and install it yourself on your roof," Pozar said. "Or you can roll your own, using the instructions on our Web site -- which include a Compact Flash memory image that serves as the operating system that you can download from our site. You'll also need a couple of other things: a high-gain antenna, and an EtherNet connection to your LAN. We've included all the connectors in the box."

What you get for this setup: Free shared Internet service, with speed up to 5MB each way. No connection fees, no monthly fees -- ever.

"The boxes only take about 7 watts of power to run," Pozar said. "We've been able to trim down the operating systems to about 64MB in size in the Flash memory. It runs x86 code and is roughly equal in power to a 486 PC running at 133 megahertz."

Donated bandwidth a key factor

Bandwidth is donated to both SFLan (from Internet Archive) and BARWN (from United Layer).

Some details of the SFLan network:

  • Symmetrical networking: Everyone can be a server with a real, routable IP address and full uplink bandwidth.
  • Uninhibited networking: No commercial policies limiting streaming or particular formats.
  • Through-the-air backbone: Touching the wired Internet at only a couple of high-bandwidth places.
  • DVD video speed: 1-5 MB/sec now, getting faster every year.
  • Distributed ownership of the network nodes: this could change networking in the same way PCs changed computing.
  • Cooperative development and support.
  • Riding Moore's Law: spend the same amount next year and get twice the speed.

If you happen to live or work within boundaries of the city of San Francisco, here's how to join SFLan:

With a laptop: Go in the vicinity of a SFLan node. Associate with it: The SSID is sflanNN, where NN is the number of node, e.g. sflan13. No WEP. You'll get an IP number assigned via DHCP.

With a house: Contact SFLan. (Please include your address and a phone number.) Find out if you have line of sight to another SFLan node, buy a node, and SFLan will put it on your roof.

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