Recently I’ve been trying to figure out a way to provide wireless broadband Internet access to everyone living within the centre of St. Albans *. This is, by the way, likely to be the geekiest blog entry I’m ever likely to make – and there is some moderately interesting historical stuff here about new media activism in the late 90’s to keep the rest of you marginally happy.
I’d like to start out small, of course, first giving access to my immediate neighbours then to people waiting for a train at St. Albans Thameslink, approximately 250 meters from my home. There are also 5 pubs within easy reach, The Horn, The Glasshouse, and 3 others I’ve only ever visited once and don’t intend to visit again. I reckon that, within this area, based on two people living in each household, there’s easily 1000 people plus another 150 or so living in a council owned tower block about 150m from my house.
I’ve got wireless broadband at home and, contrary to my provider’s terms of service which state that I am allowed to access the internet wireless from my home and garden and that people using equipment not owned by me aren’t allowed to use my internet access at all. Sure, I understand that this makes business sense – afterall, what broadband provider would be pleased at the idea that over 1000 people could potentially share a broadband line costing only £17.50 a month – but it’s not very community oriented of them.
Forgetting for a moment, as one does, the terms and conditions of my broadband access and the legalities of sharing it, I recently hinted to my neighbour that, should he wish to do so, my wireless broadband point was unsecured and free for the taking. If I ever get around to meeting the other neighbours I’ll probably tell them too.
A few years ago, when new media was new and the Internet was way cooler than it is today, I used to occasionally have the opportunity to hang around at Backspace, a sort of community media lab in Clink Street, London. One of the projects that was initiated by James Stevens, Julian (who has written an excellent document about the project) and others at Backspace (I was just one of many random hangers-on who turned up with beer and… well just leave it at that) was Consume.Net
Consume.Net, according to Armin Medosch, co-founder of CyberSalon with Richard Barbrook and Mute Magazine, was one of the World’s first FreeNetwork projects. To completely and utterly reduce this project to an easily digestible form, the original project that was Consume.Net took a high bandwidth internet connection, sent the signal wirelessly, and enabled around 100 local residents to share the connection. There were other wireless FreeNetwork projects in London too, for example http://www.free2air.org/, although that particular site now appears to be dormant and I haven’t yet had the time to research the current status of FreeNetworking in London. Consume.net, however, is still around and, on their site, you’ll find a handy FreeNetwork nodemap showing wireless access points throughout the London area.
In 1998, around the same time as Backspace was at the centre of the London new media activist World (Issue 5 of Cybersociology was dedicated to New Media Activism), I was a co-organiser of a symposium called “Exploding Media 1998” along with Micz Flor and Simon Robertshaw (both then at the University of Salford) and Josephine Berry (Mute).
This was the year that ISEA, which I also gave a presentation at but I have no idea what about, was hosted in Manchester and Liverpool. Micz was also the organiser of Revolting, a week of workshops for new media activists hosted in a building with the most fitting name for such events, “The Deaf, Blind and Dumb Institute”.
One of the best experiences I had between our symposium, ISEA, and Revolting was a workshop organised by Geo from Backspace. [Geo, I’m sorry, I have forgotten your surname and lost touch with you over the years.] We connected a small handmade broadcast unit to a Macintosh and someone, probably Geo and Micz, had climbed to the top of the building in the night with an antenna. As soon as we hooked up a microphone we entered the world of pirate radio broadcasting – about 500 meters or less, I should add, from BBC Manchester on Oxford Road. We started recording various workshops and meetings at Revolting, broadcasting them via fm to the local community who no doubt were completely unaware of our efforts. We also streamed our content online using a realmedia server we’d “acquired access to” in Canada. At some point during the day, I pointed out that the IRC programme IRCLE can turn text to speech which would allow us, as we streamed and broadcast our audio content, to give participants logging into the chat room the ability to “speak” to listeners (we taped a microphone to a speaker on the mac and ran the input from that mic to the machine doing the streaming and broadcasting). Someone else came up with the idea of also attaching a telephone to this feedback loop. A few minutes later, we were across the road in the Sandbar, a student hangout, listening to ourselves on the bar’s fm radio, asking chat users in Germany how much a pint was, then putting students on the phone to respond with the local price of beer – we’d created a local and global discussion which anyone with a radio and telephone could participate in, and users from around the world could participate in via the internet. I remember wondering if this was something that could be used by local opposition groups in the event of a war, a way to give local people access to the internet (have text readers crawl through web pages and listeners could phone in to discuss that web content), etc.
Which brings me back to the idea of sharing my wireless broadband with my neighbours in St. Albans. I should probably get this book before lunging in but those who know me realise that’s a fairly impossible strategy for me. I’ll probably do something on my own, breaking a few things in the process, then buy the book.
I’ve found that it’s scrictly against my broadband service provider’s terms and conditions for any computers other than those owned by me to share my bandwidth. I could probably get around this buy "buying" my neighbour’s wireless laptops for a small amount (1p counts as "consideration" in forming a legally binding contract) then letting them continue to use those laptops. I’m also not meant to access my broadband from outside my house except for within my garden. That’s a little bit more difficult to get around as I can’t imagine any of my neighbours rushing off to have their gardens resurveyed just so that a bit of their garden can become mine and they can share my broadband! Anyway, ignoring that particular legal issue (and hoping to find a broadband provider who doesn’t care or hasn’t thought of the sharing of bandwidth between multiple households) I have to figure out a way to actually broadcast my wireless access further than the current 10-15 houses that my Apple Airport can reach at the moment.
I’ve had a look at Dr. Bott’s Airport Extender and although it’s a good starting point, I’d definitely need a few repeaters between here and the railway station or the pubs I’m trying to reach as it only has a 3.5db gain on the Airport alone.
A better option, I think, might be to climb up on my roof with two Cantenna type amplifier/antennas which are made out of ordinary pringle cans and a £10 kit containing a few wires and other bits. This gets around 12-15db gain although it is directional. Apparently, using a large coffee can instead of a Pringles can, you can get an even greater gain of around 25db. I’ll have to dig up the site describing this when I get a few spare minutes.
I could point one of these DIY antenna thingies at the council owned tower block, doing my Robin Hood bit for the residents there who not only represent the least likely group to be able to normally afford broadband, but it also happens to be the most densly populated building in the area. I could fire a second one at the railway station which might just happen to be line of sight from my chimney.
I’d welcome anyone with experience of this type of thing, or who lives in St. Albans and is interested in somehow helping out, to get in touch via the comments option on this blog or via email if you want it to remain private. For those of you stuck in central London, the Apple Store (Regent Street) has free wireless and is open until 10pm, as does Benugo Coffee on Great Portland Street (behind the Oxford Street branch of Urban Outfitters) offers free access if you buy a coffee.
(*for the few of you who know St. Albans, I’d suggest a logical square of free access would cover from St. Michaels Village, at the bottom of Fishpool Street, over to Folly Lane, up Hatfield Road, around the back of the Thameslink Railway Station, then back along London Road.)
Update – 04 April 2005: I just came across a rather long tutorial, taken from a book about Wireless Hacking, on i-Hacked.com.