1.3 The Cooperative Approach

The difficulties of a commercial approach to wireless access exist because of a single social phenomenon: the customer is purchasing a solution and is therefore expecting a reasonable level of service for their money. In a commercial venture, the WISP is ultimately responsible for upholding their end of the agreement or otherwise compensating the customer.

The "last mile" problem has a very different outlook if each member of the network is responsible for keeping his own equipment online. Like many ideas whose time has come, the community access wireless network phenomenon is unfolding right now, all over the planet. People who are fed up with long lead times and high equipment and installation costs are pooling their resources to provide wireless access to friends, family, neighbors, schools, and remote areas that will likely never see broadband access otherwise. As difficult as the WISP nightmare example has made this idea sound, people everywhere are learning that they don't necessarily need to pay their dues to the telco to make astonishing things happen. They are discovering that it is indeed possible to provide very high bandwidth connections to those who need it for pennies?not hundreds of dollars?a month.

Of course, people who are expected to run a wireless gateway need access either to highly technical information, or to a solution that is no more difficult than plugging in a connector and flipping a switch. While bringing common experiences together can help find an easy solution more quickly, only a relatively small percentage of people on this planet know that microwave communications are even possible. Even fewer know how to effectively connect a wireless network to the Internet. As we'll see later, ubiquity is critical if wide area wireless access is going to be usable (even to the techno über-elite). It is in everyone's best interest to cooperate, share what they know, and help make bandwidth as pervasive as the air we breathe.

The desire to end this separation of "those in the know" from "those who want to know" is helping to bring people away from their computer screens and back into their local neighborhoods. In the last year, hundreds of independent local groups have formed with a very similar underlying principle: get people connected to each other for the lowest possible cost. Web sites, mailing lists, community meetings, and even IRC channels are being set up to share information about extending wireless network access to those who need it. Wherever possible, ingeniously simple and inexpensive (yet powerful) designs are being drawn up and given away. Thousands of people are working on this problem not for a personal profit motive, but for the benefit of the planet.

It is worth pointing out here that ISPs and telcos are in no way threatened by this technology; in fact, Internet service will be in even greater demand as wireless cooperatives come online. The difference is that many end users will have access without the need to tear down trees and dig up streets, and many others may find that network access in popular areas will be provided gratis, as a community service or on a cooperative trust basis, rather than as a corporate commodity.

Wireless networks can also be a tremendous boon in helping to fight censorship (both intentional and accidental). In traditional wired networks, those responsible for the existence of the network can exert a high degree of control over what happens "on their wires." Through border firewalls, proxies, packet filters, and clever routing, the ultimate network content that is available to an individual can be manipulated to an almost infinite degree. Even well-intentioned administrators who might block a port or service "for the good of the network" can unintentionally restrict the flow of information for perfectly legitimate users.

The rules are very different when the wires are taken away. Anyone with a wireless card can effectively generate whatever sort of packet they like and send it out to anyone within range. As long as nodes can agree on a common method of communications, any number of wireless networks can be created to exchange data in a way that makes it prohibitively difficult for a single entity to impose any sort of restriction on the flow of that data. Since the people involved in setting up such networks are by definition trying to communicate with each other, this can help bring about a strong sense of community. Many people find that they enjoy having a hand in building a communications infrastructure that fits their needs.