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Cutting the Cord

Activists are crafting a vision of high-speed Net access, one free of wires \o7 and\f7 monthly charges.


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — It's around noon on a busy Friday when Rick Potts, a software engineer at Netscape Communications Corp., walks into the Dana Street Roasting Co. and gently sets his laptop computer on a table near the front door. He turns it on and quickly links to a wireless high-speed Internet connection.

There are a lot of coffee bars in the Silicon Valley that let you do this sort of thing, but Dana Street is different. Here the connection is free, courtesy of a computer sitting benignly underneath a sink behind the counter.

"I just like to come here and work sometimes," Potts said. "I enjoy the flexibility. It makes for a nice work experience." In addition to work, he can check in with friends, see what's playing at the movies and make a dinner reservation.

Potts and hundreds of others have used the Dana Street wireless Internet pipe in the months since local technology entrepreneur Ross Finlayson installed it so he could use the coffee shop as a second office. "I basically set it up as a convenience for me," he said. "But it turns out lots of other people find it convenient too."

Finlayson, and thousands like him all over the world, are crafting a new vision of Internet access, a cooperative, community-based endeavor that provides wireless high-speed bandwidth, eliminating monthly fees charged by telephone and cable companies.

These activists are cobbling together systems in garages and attics, taking the wired high-speed connections that come into their homes and throwing them open to neighbors. This utopian vision of free, high-speed access, any time and anywhere, is rooted in the earliest days of the Internet, when colleges and universities freely pooled computing resources and made them available to anyone connected to the system.

"We are putting these things out there and creating communities," said Tim Pozar, a San Francisco telecommunications engineer who is at the forefront of the movement in the Bay Area.

Pozar, 43, helped create one of the earliest Internet service providers a decade ago by stringing cables through San Francisco neighborhoods. People didn't see the importance of Internet access until they had it, and once they had it, they wanted more. He sees providing cutting-edge technology to people who otherwise would not have access as a moral imperative.

"One of my main themes in life is to give tools to the world that help people express their ideas," Pozar said. "If everyone has the tools to exchange ideas, then the world will be a better place as misconceptions, government and corporate propaganda and restriction of communications will have less of an impact on the world."

Pozar began the quest for high-speed wireless distribution last year by sharing his Internet connection with a neighbor, another telecommunications engineer, Bill Ruck, who lives about a quarter of a mile away. It cost about $1,000 for all the gear, but today it would cost no more than $400 to broadcast a signal.

The transmissions that come from the modest antenna barely visible on the roof of Pozar's home in San Francisco's Sunset district can be picked up by any computer equipped with what's known as an 802.11b wireless card-a small plug-in device available for less than $100. Under the right conditions and with the proper equipment, such signals can be effective up to 20 miles away. In an urban area with heavy masonry buildings, the signal might cover half a block.

Pozar's broadcast began innocently enough as an experiment. "Now we know it can work, and people can share computing resources with their neighbors," Ruck said. "It's also a way of building a community and getting to know the people around you."

Community is a word that comes up a lot with these activists, who hope that technology can help bring Americans closer together.

"There is a community vacuum in America," said Russ Travis, a professor of sociology and social psychology and the history of technology at Cal State Bakersfield. "In the past, before we all moved around so often, people experienced a sense of connection, a sense of place. Now, it takes a war to bring us together."

The government recognized the importance of the telephone to society decades ago and crafted a system that offered subsidized service at such low rates that today more than 96% of homes in America have telephone service. But no such subsidy plan exists for Internet access, much less high-speed service.

Pozar believes that he, and others like him, can succeed in evangelizing high-speed wireless connections just as they've succeeded with standard Internet access. "I've done this before," he said. "I think I can do it again."

The model is springing up in urban areas around the world, but it's really taken hold on the West Coast, especially around San Francisco and Seattle.

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