New Yawk Unjacked

by Doc Searls

When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, the tallest thing visible from my bedroom window was the 650-foot tower of WABC radio in Lodi. WABC was what old time AM radio engineers call a "flamethrower". It put out a 50,000-watt "clear channel" signal that could be heard at night everywhere east of the Mississippi--and sometimes far beyond--on an average car radio. In our house, less than a mile from the transmitter, the signal would show up everywhere: on the phone, on the TV's speaker, in the toaster. I even once put my ear to the end of an aluminum gutter drain and heard the station's jingle.

WABC was only one of New York's seven 50-kilowatt stations. From the top of my hill I could see the transmitters of every station that broadcast from the saltwater tidelands of the Jersey Meadows: twelve in all, with a total of 38 towers. I'd often ride down to the transmitters on my bicycle to hang out with the guys who manned the things, to check out the gear and hear stories.

When I was a little older, I'd go up to the observation deck of the Empire State building, to stand inside the master antenna (now an auxiliary) for nearly all of New York's FMs. It consisted of 32 T-shaped things bristling from the circular outside wall just above and below the row of observation windows.

Somewhere in there I became a ham radio operator too.

Since then I've been fascinated with the mysteries of radio propagation. Even in the Age of the Cell, I retain a respect--even a degree of affection--for the brute force imperatives behind the broadcast system we've known for the last seventy years.

Today I listen on my laptop to stations from New York, North Carolina, London and the little towns of Freedom and Paradise (nice piece in the paper about that last one). Where I'm staying in Long Island, every station on the Net comes in better than any station on the air, including all the flamethrowers. Inside this building, radio reception sucks. Unless you're listening with a computer over a WiFi base station--then it's fine.

There's a new kind of radio going on. And it's carrying the entire Net along with it. It's the WiFi revolution, and there's no place on Earth where it's happening in a bigger way than here in New York.

Visit NYCwireless.net. Look at the map and node database. As of today, there are 6,217 nodes in 475 locations, all expressing NYCwireless' first mission: "Provide Free Public Wireless Internet Service to mobile users in public spaces throughout the New York City metro area."

I'm told a lot of what's happening involves Linux as well. Which is why I'm here in New York to check it out.

Right now I'm lining up meetings with folks and visits to some of these locations over four days starting tomorrow (I drive into town on Friday). I want to come away with pictures, stories and an understanding of What's Going On that's as deep about What's Happening Now as my knowledge (and it's considerable) of what was happening way back when radio was still a one-way medium from the few to the many.

And, of course, to share what I find out with the rest of you.

If you'd like to help steer me along the way, write me at [email protected]. And point me to stuff on the Web that will help as well. Time is short.

Meanwhile, I'll be listening from the 28th floor, somewhere in Tudor City. (Remember where the bad guy lived in Spiderman? That's the neighborhood.)

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. His column is Linux For Suits, and his bi-weekly newsletter is SuitWatch.

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