9.7 The Community Takes Notice

Luckily, we didn't have to wait very long for the community to notice us. Just after I returned from Seattle, a local newspaper (The Press Democrat, http://www.pressdemo.com/business/columns/02sims.html) ran a feature on some of my wireless shenanigans. I had no idea at the time how valuable this kind of exposure could be to the community LAN idea. Within a week, I had received a few dozen emails and several phone calls from locals who were interested in wireless networking. Some offered expertise and equipment, while others were simply curious about our plans and what could be accomplished with 802.11b.

After the article ran, our mailing list grew to about 25 people. We decided to hold a general meeting to get organized and figure out what we wanted to do with this stuff. I was pleasantly surprised when 16 interested people showed up at that first meeting. Many were looking for free high-speed access, while others were simply curious. A few were Northpoint victims who had been forcibly unplugged from their DSL when that company went under, and they were looking for any alternative (apparently, they were no longer considered part of the "prime" market, and would likely not see high-speed access again for quite a while).

As the discussion went well into the third hour, it was obvious from that first meeting that this was going to turn into a regular event. These people were keenly interested in contributing to a free local network, and had a tremendous amount of knowledge and resources among them. But until now, they had no good way of connecting with each other. From this first get-together, all sorts of possibilities began to present themselves.

The general consensus was that, if people who had high-speed Net access wanted to share with those who wanted it but, for whatever reason, could not get it, there were several technical obstacles that needed to be overcome:

  • The solution couldn't cost thousands of dollars, or else no one could afford it.

  • There had to be a secure and easy way of figuring out who was who, and limiting what they could do on the network (so that node owners wouldn't be exposed to abusers, or have their hard-earned bandwidth monopolized by a freeloading few).

  • The solution needed to be easy for someone with limited skills to set up, and require little or no maintenance.

  • There had to be an easy way for people interested in point-to-point links to meet with each other.

  • People who did have a fair idea of how to proceed needed access to all sorts of information, from choosing microwave connectors to configuring laptops.

We had some answers to these issues, but it became clear that these were going to be long-term problems, shared by anyone attempting to put together a community group. We put as much information as we could up at NoCat and pointed to others who had answers whenever possible.

The nearest wireless community group to Sebastopol was the BAWUG, who met regularly in the San Jose area. Since we were obviously working on parallel lines, it seemed to be time to see what our neighbors to the south were up to. I got a couple of local wireless zealots together and we made the two-hour trek to San Jose for a meeting.

The June 2001 BAWUG meeting was a great opportunity to network further. Much like our Sebastopol meeting, there were people with all different abilities and expectations present (only here there were about 50 of them!). After a couple of interesting presentations, I got a chance to talk with antenna gurus, some Apple Airport hackers, and even a commercial wireless startup.

There was much buzz about the impending Portland Summit meeting: wireless community leaders from all over were going to converge on Portland for a weekend of planning, talk, beer, and general hackery. This was a meeting I could not miss.