9.5 Seattle Wireless

The following March, I took a trip to Seattle. My brother was moving to the area, so I took the opportunity to travel with him up north to see the Seattle Wireless network for myself. I must admit that I wasn't fully prepared (psychologically) for what I found when I got there. Here were a bunch of very sharp sysadmins, programmers, and net monkeys, who were gearing up to build a redundant, fully routed public network, independent of the Internet. They were working on this project entirely in their spare time, with no promise of reward other than the joy of hacking out a project that simply needed to be done. They weren't just hooking up a couple of APs and trusting their luck; they had an entire network topology planned, a hardware solution down, and nodes in the works to connect sites miles apart.

I spent a day building antennas and speculating about the possibilities of 802.11b with the SWN crowd. By the end of the day, we managed to put together a yagi made out of washers, some tubing, a bolt, and a pie tin that carried an 11Mbps signal about a mile. The topography of Seattle is such that their network plans will probably work: tall buildings, rolling hills, and limited tree cover makes much of the city accessible (assuming one can get on top of the hills). I went back to Sebastopol with a couple of important realizations:

  • There was tremendous interest in high-speed wireless networking, even among people who already had high-speed wired access. Ubiquitous wireless seemed to be almost as much in demand as DSL and cable modems.

  • The seemingly insurmountable difficulty of finding LOS between points can't really be approached by one person or group. But a larger community, working together toward the same goal, can bring a lot of resources to bear on any problem.

  • Wireless networking isn't as simple as replacing a piece of CAT5 with a radio. Radio has many strange properties that are completely alien to people who have been studying computers and networking for years.

  • Conversely, many radio experts find themselves lost when dealing with the intricacies of Internet networking (until very recently, a 9600 baud packet radio connection to a computer running a DOS TCP/IP stack was considered high tech in many circles). If we intend to push 802.11b beyond its intended limits, the plateau of knowledge that separates hardcore network jockeys from hardcore radio geeks must be crossed.

Ironically, it started to look like it would be easier to get the entire Sebastopol area unplugged with open network access, rather than try to connect a few users to a private network. But to do that, I certainly couldn't do all of the work. I needed to find out if there was as much interest in my area as there seemed to be in the rest of the country.