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Grass Roots WiFi in London

Doc Searls

Issue #101, September 2002

Doc arrives in London to discover free, wireless net-access infrastructure being built by hackers using Linux and other handy materials.

Linux for Suits

The People's Infrastructure: Grass Roots WiFi in London

I travel around the US so much that I usually make sure I have local net-access numbers before I leave. Mostly this involves keeping an EarthLink account because EarthLink has a lot of numbers and requires no special client software to access them, but travel overseas is another matter. I've only gone twice in the last two years, and both times I departed unprepared.

The first trip was in the fall of 2000 to Lucerne in Switzerland. None of the local-access numbers for EarthLink worked, nor the numbers for my hosting ISP's local Swiss “partner”. I gave up and called numbers in the states.

The second trip was last week (it's mid-June 2002 as I write this). Before I left, EarthLink told me they were no longer (despite their name) offering overseas access, and I didn't have time to hassle with joining AT&T's system, which apparently has access numbers around the world but evidently exposes them only through their Windows client dialing software. Just before I left, I quickly engaged the services of two resellers of a “global roaming” provider called iPass (ipass.com) and headed for Munich. It looked easy: a $5.00 setup charge, plus somewhere between $.03 and $.23 per minute once I got on-line.

But I never could figure out how to get local numbers from either of the iPass OEMs (one eventually wrote to apologize for never getting me on the system, which could only be set up by phone call with a salesperson). However, it didn't matter because something miraculous arrived before I did: wireless net access.

Our hotel in Munich featured a wireless signal covering the lobby and meeting rooms. They sold it in the form of a card with an ID and a password hidden behind one of those scratch-off black patches they use on lottery tickets. You can buy two hours for 9 Euros or 24 hours for 29 Euros. (Not cheap, but very handy.) You simply fire up a browser, go to a URL specified on the card, enter your ID and password, and you're on for as long as the meter runs.

The event was JabberConf (www.jabberconf.com), where the techies on staff offered plenty of bandwidth as well—all of it free for anybody who wanted it. Unfortunately, their WiFi base station had some kind of problem, so everybody had to share an eight-port hub out in the hall. I wanted to be live on the Net in the meeting rooms, so I paid the hotel for the privilege, and it worked very well.

But the mindblower came when I arrived in London. After failing once again at dial-up from my hotel, I went down to the local internet café. There I paid a few pounds to sit for a couple hours with my laptop jacked into the Net, looking for local wireless access points. It took awhile, but I eventually hit pay dirt in the form of Consume.net (consume.net), the FAQ of which modestly describes its mission as “a collaborative strategy for the self provision of a broadband telecommunications infrastructure”. And indeed, that's what it is.

The top link on the left column of the main index page is “Nodes”. Clicking here brings up a map with little circles all over it, each bearing the name of an access point. Some, like Hyde Park and Greenwich University, are relatively obvious locations—if you're a local, which I'm not. Most are obscure: “twenteenth node”, “dude”, “neotokyo”. But after I subtracted out all but the operational nodes (marked green), I found that the nearest one, called Kynance Mews, was a short walk up Gloucester Road from my hotel on Cromwell, in South Kensington.

When I clicked on “get node info”, a page with an abundance of useful information appeared. In addition to the name of the node, it featured coordinates by both latitude/longitude and the Ordnance Survey, links to detailed street maps and aerial photographs and a list of every other node within 4,000 meters, including distance (to the meter) and compass bearing (to the degree). The description read, “Up and running—covering Kynance Mews and Kynance Place. This includes two cafés with good coffee and outside seating. Hurrah!”

So I walked straight up Gloucester, and sure enough, a signal presented itself as soon as I passed the parallel entries to Kynance Mews and Kynance Place. Down at the other end of the latter was a pretty little French café with outdoor seating called Petite Délice. So I went down there, ordered a coffee and a pastry, sat down, opened my laptop and found I was already on the Net. The node identified as Kynance Community Wireless, assigned me a DHCP address and let me at the bandwidth. To further perfect the situation, the sky had turned to puffy blue clouds, the air was warm, the flowers blooming, the birds singing and South Kensington looked as postcard-perfect as you can imagine.

Two tables away another patron was sitting at a table talking about “access” to a tall and familiar-looking young gentleman walking a very friendly greyhound. I called over and said “Excuse me, is this your node I'm on?” “Yes”, he said, and came over. A look of recognition crossed his face and he said, “You're Doc Searls!” “Yes!” I replied. After uttering a delighted expletive, he held out his hand and introduced himself as Ben Hammersley.

That would be the same Ben Hammersley who writes for the London Times, the Guardian and O'Reilly Books, for which he's currently working on an authoritative piece on RSS. He also writes four different weblogs and had recently attended O'Reilly's Emerging Technologies Conference in Santa Clara, California, which is why I sort-of recognized him, because I was there too.

I shortly found out that Ben's node hangs off a Linux box and that Consume.net is served up by Linux and Apache as well. The connections, however, only began there. Soon we were joined by Ben's wife Anna (whose father is Olof Soderblom, inventor of Token Ring), and my assimilation into the Hammersley's techno-social network began, along with a crash course on grassroots infrastructure building that I'm sure would never proceed so quickly without Linux and allied free and open protocols—along with resourceful hackers to make the most of them.

For example, I learned about warwalking. The “war” in this case is not combat, but Wireless Access Reconnaissance. Matt Jones, architect of BBC Interactive, explained to me that warwalking was the pedestrian equivalent of wardriving, which reportedly got its name from the movie War Games. In either case, it's still about reconnaissance. Services like Consume.net just take some of the work out of it.

One of the other wireless patrons at Petite Délice told me there are downloadable scripts that will turn your laptop into something like a Geiger counter for WiFi. That way, you can walk around town with a closed laptop in hand, wearing headphones that make a sound when the laptop picks up WiFi signals. Matt even showed me hand-drawn schematics for his own variant of warwalking, called warchalking. With warchalking, hackers can use chalk to mark local-access status on curbs and sidewalks, much as service workers use spray paint on pavement to identify subterranean plumbing and electrical services. A closed circle might mean the presence of a closed access point, while an open circle (two halves, back to back) would identify an open network. Matt plans to write this up by the time this hits print. You should be able to find pointers somewhere amidst his main personal site, www.blackbeltjones.com.

Not that everybody is going about this in perfect harmony. One of my new friends in London is Yoz Graheme (yoz.com), source of “Perl is Internet Yiddish” and other memorable lines. When I asked Yoz about Consume.net's Linux connections, he wrote back, “I think (they) are using Linux but being notoriously closed about their code....I'm not sure of the whole story there, but I know it's causing a fair degree of consternation.”

But Consume.net is not the only grassroots wireless movement in London. Another high-profile effort is free2air.org (www.free2air.org), which has a global scope with an apparently strong UK constituency. Naturally, their site is served by Apache on Linux.

As it happens, I was in London to address some high-level civil servants on how technologists and ordinary citizens in free markets were taking both infrastructure and government into their own hands—using Linux and other technology developments as examples. I spoke on my last day there, so I had a lot to report about what was happening locally, complete with digital photographs I had been taking since I arrived. One photo, titled “An Exploration of Infrastructure Irony”, was a telephoto shot of the top of an idle phone booth, with Ben Hammersley's base station in a window behind it. The entire time I spent on Kynance Place, I saw nobody using that telephone. Meanwhile, I have no idea how many people used Ben's node to access the Net for free—more than a few, I'm sure.

What these hackers were producing, I pointed out, demonstrated how the Net sees choke points as failures and routes around them. I also suggested that the same kind of thing would be happening with governments as well. “This isn't 'power to the people”', I said. “It's power from the people”, and there is a huge difference. The Net is made “of, by and for the people” in a very literal sense.

Much of the talk among my hacker friends in London was about politics. As with the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and subsequent lawmaking in the US, the UK has had its share of net-hostile legislation and organizations formed to fight it. Foremost among those is STAND (stand.org.uk). Matt Jones explains:

STAND was created by a bunch of us in early 1998 to fight the Electronic Commerce bill, which we went several rounds with until it became the RIP bill, and then Act. However, in doing that, we created some faxing technology that we knew was useful on its own, and so created FaxYourMP as a notionally separate entity (FYMP is determinedly nonpartisan; STAND is totally single-issue lobbying—both happen to be run by the same people). STAND went into hibernation when RIP went through but was very recently (as in a couple of weeks ago) brought back in a new form by Danny O'Brien, who is one of the team, to fight the RIPA extensions. The FYMP code is a mess of PHP, MySQL and various other open-source things, and it mainly runs on FreeBSD boxes. We've often thought of opening the code, but we'd have to substantially clean it up first, and it's way too bitty. Besides, the value is in the setup as a whole, and it still takes regular administration and cash to keep it running. As I said, the software tools are free, but the things that cost are a) the fax calls, because local calls still cost money here and b) the data, which matches a user's postcode to an MP, which is copyrighted and has to be bought.

After I arrived back in the US, a flurry of e-mails delivered news that the STAND site described this way:

As most of you will already have heard, the government has backed down from the RIP s22 Order that would have given access to traffic data to dozens of government departments. We thought you'd like to know that this U-turn was largely down to you.

The FaxYourMP folk say that they relayed 1,789 faxes from last Monday and estimate that around 1,600 of those were related to the s22 RIP Order. That means that, on average, every MP received at least two messages expressing concern over the measure.

We've received mail from constituents saying that their Member of Parliament called them directly to discuss the issue. We've had MPs mail us with advice. We've had TV companies and newspapers contact us after they'd been hassled by their readers and viewers. We've even had MPs writing letters to constituents explaining, mournfully, that there was nothing they could do—and then had their own voters explain to them how to attend Standing Committee debates and who to contact to help fight this order. Ah, those apathetic votees.

Power from the people. It happened with the Net. It happened with Linux. It's happening with WiFi. And it's going to happen with government too. Count on it.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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