Linux Makes Wi-Fi Happen in New York City

Community groups, startup companies and even the phone company are using Linux to make New York City into one big happy wireless network hot spot. How is your town doing?

Public wireless networks are hacker community outreach. For hackers, it's a way to bring broadband Internet to public spaces. For users in streets and parks, it's a more civilized public life. Unwired from providers, public Wi-Fi makes the Net a gift—a civic grace akin to parks, sidewalks, boulevards and libraries.

In May 2003, when the FCC continued deregulating ownership of what we used to call the “public” air waves, the agency made a big deal about “saving” what was left of “free over-the-air” broadcasting. The Internet, however, needs no deregulation—or regulation—to make it free over the air. All it needs is generous technologists, citizens and civic organizations. That's what we have in New York City today. And, their work is remarkable to behold.

New York Unwired

Some public Wi-Fi efforts are largely municipal. That's the case with Long Beach, California, which provides a large public “hot zone” in its downtown and another at its airport. Other efforts are driven by technically savvy volunteers, such as in Austin, London, Perth, Seattle, San Francisco and many other places. Companies also are doing their part. In Asheville, North Carolina, Natural Communications offers a public hot spot called the BeamPost. New York, however, is different breed. It's all the above.

Although New York ranks 27th on Intel's list of “most unwired” cities (Portland is first), it is perhaps the best example of a working consensus between hackers, businesses, government and nonprofits about the need for free public Wi-Fi. This consensus is what gave rise to NYCwireless, a self-described “loose collection of interested minds”. NYCwireless has two missions: to provide free public wireless Internet access and to provide a forum for wireless technology development.

The founders of NYCwireless are Anthony Townsend and Terry Schmidt, partners in Emenity, the company that has been building out the new NYCwireless infrastructure in New York. Both NYCwireless and Emenity are products of public and private symbiosis—same with its customers, which include publicly funded neighborhood associations created for the purpose, among other things, of building out infrastructural improvements, such as public Wi-Fi in the parks.

In May, New York's City Council issued a staff report that recommends a restructuring of the city's fractured broadband procurement methods, a new fiber/wireless metropolitan area network (MAN) and public Wi-Fi networks. As an example of the latter, it says a potential Prospect Park Wi-Fi network would cost $192,000 to create but little to maintain. That report opens with special thanks to Anthony Townsend, who is also a Research Scientist at NYU's Taub Urban Research Center, where he has produced a pile of wise and seminal papers about the growth of the Internet in urban settings. Terry Schmidt's job is turning Anthony's vision into reality. Terry is Emenity's CTO and the hacker behind Pebble Linux, the stripped-down Debian used in NYCwireless access points.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Re: Linux Makes Wi-Fi Happen in New York City

Anonymous's picture

Personally, I'm looking for this kind of 'exciting development' in my neighborhood, but rural New Hampshire is not going to go WiFi for a few decades, I'm certain!!! I'm glad someone is doing it, though.

I really loved the ghetto blaster conversion idea - very reminiscent of the 1970s trend of converting floor standing 78 RPM Victrolas to use 'modern' turntables (to play LPs/45s) and adding an AM/FM reciever to make a former cast-off into a retro home entertainment center.... just like this Bass-Station, for today.

Great article!