Chapter 6. Long-Range Networking

You have an access point. Your laptop is humming merrily along. While working at home or the office is more flexible than ever, you find yourself wondering what it would take to get a signal across the street, at your favorite coffee shop.

Or maybe you live in an area where you're on the perpetual "we'll get back to you" list for broadband services such as DSL and cable modems and you're ready to make it happen now. With the right equipment, enough participants, and the cooperation of the lay of the land, you can make broadband Internet access a reality in your neck of the woods.

Whatever your motivations, you are looking for a way to extend 802.11b beyond the listed 300-meter limit. This is not only possible and completely legal, it's also a lot of fun. You first need to figure out what your target coverage area is, and what resources you need to make it happen.

While extending your private network for an extra block or two (or even several miles, with the proper antennas) may be interesting for you, it does nothing for those around you except generate more noise in the band. Most people will find it prohibitively expensive to rent tower space and set up network access for themselves, for wherever they happen to be in town. This has led to the fascinating phenomenon of the cooperative wireless network.

The single best piece of advice I can give you on your journey to the ultimate network (whether public or private) is to fight the urge to blindly go it alone. Get people from your local neighborhood involved. Call a general meeting of interested parties. Find other people in your area who are interested in similar goals, and get your resources together. If there aren't any, join the development lists of any of the major community network groups (see Chapter 8) and ask around. Chances are, others have done (or are contemplating doing) what you want to do, and they'll probably be more than happy to share their experiences.

As the number of people interested in wireless network access increases, a public-access network stands to benefit by access to more vantage points, both figurative and physical. While you might not have direct line of sight to a place you want to talk to, your neighbor might. And for complementary network access, they might just be willing to let you install some equipment and use their house as a repeater. Wireless bandwidth costs only electricity and equipment, not telephone or cable company charges. This kind of massively parallel, cooperative arrangement is what makes a high-speed wireless wide area network possible. However, I can only give you the technical details: the social details are left as an exercise to the reader.