Starting several years ago, the WiFi movement began freeing internet users from cable modems and, ultimately, from corporate companies. In Portland, volunteer groups of computer nerds began setting up nodes, from which users could access and surf the net for nothing. Besides freeing users from paying Comcast $40 a month, it was a blueprint for a utopian, free-for-all dream.
But a year ago, city hall decided to step into the unfolding WiFi revolution to see if they could help out. With the best intentions, city officials declared they would stretch the WiFi cloud across the entire city. However, this plan now threatens to bungle up the original notion of free and unfettered access to the web.
On Friday, the city announced it would begin accepting proposals—but ultimately, the city's WiFi plan will be privately owned; EarthLink has already expressed interest. Unlike the current free nodes, most services from this citywide WiFi blanket would be available for a monthly charge.
The city has defended the plan as a chance to deliver WiFi to more neighborhoods and to bring cheaper access to municipal services—like public schools. But that expansion will come at a trade-off—namely, returning the internet to the very corporations the WiFi revolution was hoping to take it away from.
For years, Portland has been at the forefront of the WiFi revolution. That honor is directly linked to Personal Telco, a group of self-proclaimed geeks who have quietly gone about setting up dozens of nodes around the city—in coffee shops, in stores, at Pioneer Square. They have even begun to blanket the entire North Mississippi Avenue neighborhood with free internet access.
It's unclear what will happen to the current WiFi nodes if the city's plan moves forward. But representatives from Personal Telco have explained that multiple hosts could gum up the airwaves, like two radio stations trying to broadcast at the same frequency.
As this is largely uncharted territory, it is also difficult to predict how a group of volunteer computer geeks will fare against mega-corporations. But speaking in terms of evolution, the best does not necessarily survive—it's usually the strongest. PHIL BUSSE
The next Personal Telco meeting is on Wednesday, September 28, Urban Grind, 2214 NE Oregon, 6–9 pm.