You Say You Want a Wireless Revolution?

Grassroots groups see bandwidth for the taking. Funny, but the Net providers don't

Juan Carlos Sobrino isn't your typical rebel. The New Yorker lives a quiet life in Lower Manhattan with his wife and eight-month-old daughter. But 18 months ago, he and a bunch of friends who were hanging out in a local café after being laid off at dot-coms decided it would be fun to set up a wireless network using the new Wi-Fi standard that was getting a lot of buzz in tech circles. Sobrino put an antenna on the second floor of his apartment building and pointed it at the café 300 feet down the block.

Now, dozens of his friends enjoy high-speed Internet access all day long--for free. Only Sobrino pays. He ponies up the $80 monthly fee for a high-speed Net connection installed in his home that makes it possible for everyone to get online--unbeknownst to his carrier. "It's neat, like the Web when it was just a small group of people," says Sobrino, 31, who is now a tech consultant. "And it circumvents that whole group of people who are charging for connectivity."

Sobrino isn't plastering billboards with "Free the Wireless Web" slogans--yet. But he is part of a grassroots movement of techies, social activists, and suburbanites that is sweeping the airwaves from Leesburg, Va., to Laramie, Wyo. No one knows exactly how many people are piping into Wi-Fi for free, but 75 U.S. community wireless networks are listed online, up from 25 late last year.

Wi-Fi is populist technology--simple to install and inexpensive. Off-the-shelf equipment and the Wi-Fi radio band, a piece of spectrum where anyone can transmit wireless signals for free, make it easy to set up a network--costing as little as $250--that scores of others can use. And there's no limit to the home brew techniques used to cut even those minor costs. People have fashioned antennas out of Pringles cans, while others have strapped laptops with antennas to the handlebars of bikes and roamed Manhattan looking for Wi-Fi hot spots. In San Francisco, a small group of techies is setting up high-powered homemade antennas on 20 mountaintops that will provide free or low-cost wireless connections throughout the Bay Area.

For many, the technology takes a backseat to politics. The founders of the year-old NYCwireless network, for example, are civic-minded. The nonprofit organization wants to provide free, high-speed wireless Net access in local parks. At the other end of the spectrum is 18-month-old Seattle Wireless, an anarchist bunch that wants to wrest control from the telcos and media companies. The group is creating an independent local wireless network, carrying e-mail, chat sites, and soon, phone calls. "We're saying the old way of building networks isn't the way it has to go," says Seattle Wireless co-founder Matt Westervelt.

That attitude is putting the grassroots networks on a collision course with cable companies and telecom carriers. While many groups believe it makes sense to share bandwidth no one is using, the practice violates some broadband service contracts. Verizon (VZ ), AT&T Broadband, and Comcast (CMCSA ) say sharing bandwidth outside of the home is piracy. So far, Sobrino hasn't had any run-ins with his service provider.

Still, the grassroots networks have a few forces on their side. The Federal Communications Commission says it has no plans to regulate the technology. And some small broadband providers, including New York-based Bway.Net Inc., hope to attract more subscribers by offering contracts that allow people to share their DSL or cable-modem service. And then there are people like Sobrino, who simply want to spread the free wireless gospel. "I like that we let other people use the bandwidth," he says. Wi-Fi partisans worldwide feel the same way.

By Heather Green in New York

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