We previously noted a grassroots wireless initiative in Mount Pleasant that the Open Technology Institute is assisting and we are now cross-posting more details that they recently published. Thanks to Preston Rhea, who published this interview with one of the first volunteers to install a node.
I recently wrote about a local effort to build a wireless community network in Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C.In April I chatted with Bill Comisky, the first neighbor-link in the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network (MtPCWN), a grassroots approach to providing wireless access to the neighborhood. Bill discussed why he installed an Internet-connected mesh router on his roof, his skilled observations and recommendations for the network, and what he hopes to see the network support for the neighborhood in the future.
How did you hear about the network?
I heard about it when you posted to our street’s e-mail list in June. On that super-local list, people like to share things – tools, a cup of sugar, furniture – and it’s also neighborly to share wireless access. I worked with Sascha (Meinrath, Director, Open Technology Institute) on community wireless a few years ago, so it immediately caught my eye.
You’ve worked on this before?
I design antennas for a living, so I have a professional interest. In Chicago, I volunteered with the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology installing wireless networks in underserved communities. Even though it was only a few years ago, the software and hardware were much less developed than they are today. The equipment cost several hundred dollars and we had to assemble it the hard way ourselves. Since then, things have gotten robust and cheap.
I asked for your advice at the beginning of the project about the technology considerations.
For low-cost technology, a wireless mesh network is a complicated system. It’s difficult to estimate how radio waves will operate in an urban environment. You have to consider 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz for the WiFi frequency band – 2.4 GHz propagates better than 5 GHz through trees and around buildings, but it is also a congested frequency due to the routers in people’s homes. Those are decisions you have to make up front, because you can’t reverse mid-stream and tell people to change their routers.
There was a question about whether these routers would just serve as backbones for a network, or also as access points themselves. The new systems include dual-purposed rooftop nodes, which can act as a backbone router and an access point–like what you see at a cafe or a library. So in hindsight, unlocked access points broadcasting at 2.4 GHz is a good idea because most people use 2.4 GHz on their laptops and phones.
Why did you choose to share your Internet connection as a gateway?
My past experience makes me a good early adopter. I have the tech skills to troubleshoot if needed, which hasn’t come up yet! I work from home and I have a good Internet connection with more bandwidth than I really need or use. It’s there, why not share it?
It’s nice for people to have a stop-gap solution for Internet access. Everything you do requires a broadband connection – email, applying to jobs, connecting to your bank. If you don’t have a broadband-capable phone, and you lose your home broadband, you have to go to the library. This is a critical service, and there aren’t a lot of options. Comcast and Verizon–that’s the extent of ISP options on our street.
What are your connection details?
My Internet bandwidth is 20 Mbps download, 2 Mbps upload. I have quality of service (QoS) rules to prioritize my traffic, but if someone on MtPCWN needs the bandwidth and I’m not using it, there is no cap. So far I have experienced no difference in my speeds.
Have you heard any feedback about the network?
I have heard from several neighbors. A while ago someone emailed asking about the network, since a router was accidentally unplugged (author’s note: it was my router!) and she relies on it for access. We were able to help her out with that. A few people have come to me on the street asking about the network and if they can use it. People ask questions about the cost, and the security. They are good questions – people should know what they are getting in to.
What local applications would you like to see on the network?
The Internet has made a ton of things accessible, but it’s hard to get hyper-local content. A local radio station streaming over the network is like a very old radio station – you have to be in the geographic range to hear it. Nothing prevents people from doing this on the Internet, but the audience can get very diluted. You know that if you have listeners in a very local context, they will get your references. They have more of a chance for their voice to be heard by a relevant audience. It’s like being in the local town square.
Photos courtesy of Preston Rhea from Flickr