‘Parasitic grid’ wireless movement may hurt telecoms

An underground movement to deploy free wireless access zones in metropolitan areas is taking hold. If it turns out to be successful, wireless network operators may be fighting against a grounds-up movement that could undermine their multibillion-dollar campaign to offer next-generation 3G (third-generation) wireless services in major metro areas.

The movement, called by some the “parasitic grid” and by others more simply the “free metro wireless data network,” has already installed itself in British Columbia; New York; San Francisco; Seattle; Aspen, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; and London.

“If you have enough of these in place and spread out effectively, you have created what is referred to as a parasitic grid: multiple wireless-served areas. If you have enough you would have connectivity nationally,” said J. R. Bibb, a technology advisor to Shell Oil Co. in Houston. Bibb was offering his own opinion as a technologist and was not speaking for Shell Oil.

What it is all about is the use of a technology called 802.11b, a standard for wireless Ethernet that works on an unlicensed portion of the wireless spectrum. At a performance of 11Mb per second, it is in fact five times faster than the best speeds promised by all the major wireless network operators for 3G services.

“The major goal is to build up the 802.11b infrastructure inside the city. If you have a home that is connected to the Internet, for example, I use your connection and you can use mine,” said Matt Westervelt, one of the originators of what he likes to call a “symbiotic grid” rather than a parasitic one.

Westervelt talks about a network of volunteers deploying, at their own expense, a wireless access point on the outside of their home, or at worst at a window, with the access point connected to the volunteer’s PC.

The access point, as the name implies, gives users within range of any one of these access points who have a wireless LAN card in their mobile device a connection to any other device or node on the same LAN.

Once a more or less complete grid of access points are put up around a city, grid participants could connect into the LAN to access numerous services, including a free alternative to fee-based cellular networks. Voice services over 802.11b are typically referred to as VoIP (voice over IP).

Other services envisioned include information distribution for city services, free e-mail for all citizens, and, for a budget-strapped city government, inexpensive access to Internet terminals in public places such as libraries.

“Presumably these free metro wireless access could help to erase the digital divide,” said Scott Kennedy, one of nine candidates for mayor for the city of Seattle and owner of the BitStar Caf