An unexpected outcome of the standardization in the fall of 1999 of wireless local area networks (WLAN) operating at 11 Mbps in the license-free ISM band at 2.45 GHz according to IEEE 802.11b and the subsequent abundant supply of compatible equipment from several vendors was a new international grassroots movement:

Wireless Community Networks are high-speed computer networks built by amateurs in local communities around the world, using affordable off-the-shelf equipment for wireless local area networks (WLAN) and residential grade broadband connections to the Internet. The first such groups or communities started already in the mid or late 1990s, but the big boom came in the year 2000, after Apple Computer introduced the Apple Airport wireless access point aggressively priced at US$ 300.

Two kinds of such networks can be identified: (1) Local access networks aim to provide convenient wireless access to visitors. Each access point is connected to a broadband Internet connection, such as DSL or cable TV, or ultimately fiber to the home (FTTH). (2) Point-to-point links over a few miles can be designed by replacing the omnidirectional antenna with a highly directional antenna. To save money, such antennas can be bought from bankrupt satellite TV projects or home made - a popular model is even made from a Pringles potato chip can! These point-to-point links are useful for those living in remote areas, outside the reach of DSL or cable TV networks, and who cannot get affordable broadband Internet connection in any other way.

Wireless Community Network groups exist in several cities and countries already. Here are some of them:

Some of these are building long distance point-to-point links, some are installing in cafes all over town, and others are mere discussion forums and idea exchanges. Several of the groups run their own Wiki websites (which might explain why they are not frequent on Everything2?).


Wireless local area network technology has been around since the early 1990s, but has consisted of proprietary solutions were all installed equipment has to be bought from the same vendor (e.g. Breezecom, Aironet or Symbol Technologies). Important industrial applications have been supermarket point-of-sales terminals and handheld warehouse inventory computers. The same technology has also been used in offices, replacing wired local area networks (LANs). Since these radios are short-range and installations are numerous, the agencies that regulate radio frequency spectrum (e.g. FCC in the U.S.) has recognized that the administration costs for licensing would exceed their benefit, and thus reserved frequency bands that are license-free. The IEEE LAN/MAN Standads Committee (IEEE 802) in 1997 made the first standard for such wireless LANs, called IEEE 802.11, specifying a transfer rate of 2 Mbps for operation in the ISM band (industrial, scientific, medical) at 2.45 GHz. Waiting for a much improved IEEE 802.11a version, an interim standard IEEE 802.11b was released in the fall of 1999, specifying a transfer rate of 11 Mbps operating in the same band. The first products designed for this standard were square black boxes looking like ordinary LAN equipment for office or industrial use, priced at $10,000 for a wireless access point (base station) and $1,500 for a client PCcard.

As often is the case, Apple Computer has visions that reach further into the future than is commercially useful. Envisioning that laptop computers and wireless networks would be useful in classrooms, they designed the Apple Airport wireless access point (base station) and client card for the iBook based on the chip set from Lucent Technologies (and functionally equivalent to the Lucent's products, named either WaveLAN or ORiNOCO), both extremely easy to use and priced at half or one-third of the competitors' products. These products were announced in late 1999 or early 2000, as soon as the IEEE 802.11b standard was released. The pricing invited residential users, and WLANs were soon a threat to the similar HomeRF networking technology. Soon products from 3Com and D-Link started to appear in the same Apple price range. Since the standard is a standard, clients running other operating systems will interface just as easily with the Apple Airport base station. If you have an Apple Airport in your home, I can use it when I visit you, provided I have a WLAN card in my laptop, even if it runs Microsoft Windows or Linux. When hobbyists discovered this, they started to install wireless access points in their favorite cafes. By extending the radios' reach with directional antennas, point-to-point links can be constructed for longer distances, bringing wireless broadband to remote homes.

The potentials of multiple-vendor WLAN compatibility has also inspired some companies to set up commercial public networks in airports, cafes, and other places. Most prominent of these is Mobilestar, which in February 2001 started to install wireless access points in Starbucks locations across the American continent. The commercial success is yet waiting though, and in the fall of 2001 Mobilestar found themselves in financial troubles. It seems that the financial sustainability of grassroots community networks can be a more viable model for the near future.

In 2000 and 2001, wireless LANs and wireless community networks have gotten a lot of attention in media, not least because they are seen as an "anarchistic threat" to traditional cell phone network operators, and because the security threat posed by eavesdropping on wireless computer communication. The first book on "Building Wireless Community Networks" will appear in November 2001, written by Rob Flickenger, wireless pioneer and O'Reilly employee.

See also: 3G, AirSnort, Airwave, Bluetooth, Boeing, Brewster Kahle, Cisco, D-Link, drive-by spamming, ETSI, Excilan, FCC, Here U Are, HiperLAN2, HomeRF, IEEE, IEEE 802, IEEE 802.11, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.1x, Intel, licensing, Lucent, Microsoft, NetStumbler, Prism II, rogue access point, Surf and Sip, Telia, Telia HomeRun, UMTS, war driving, WECA, Wi-Fi, Windows XP, Wireless ethernet, WLAN

Check for a more complete list of 02.11b community wireless lan networks.

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