Nobody Rules the (Micro)Waves

Wireless Communities - What they are and how they work.

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When Bernie Ebbers - one of the chief executives of former telecom-giant Worldcom - gave a press conference in 2002 on the occasion of Worldcom's bankrupcy and his resignment, he announced that Worldcom will liquidate their whole wireless networking assets because, as he put it "we see no business opportunities in this technology" When something is declared bad business at the death-bed of a major telecom business, then that is at least reason to take a look at it. So what is this wireless networking technology that yields no business opportunities anyway?

Actually there are a number of wireless transmission standards used for networking. One of the more well-known might be WAP which was supposed to deliver content to cellphones. It failed to lift off commercially. Another one is Bluetooth which is more meant to connect various devices to a computer without interface cables. That one has not yet lifted off either mostly to lack of compatible devices. The one which will be the subject of this article is called WiFi or Wireless LAN. This standard was drafted in 1999 by the WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), and it did lift off somewhat. It spread through hotel- and corporate lobbies and university campus to provide easily accessible network services at such locations for well-paying customers or students and important executives without them having to plug their laptops into network ports with ugly and unwieldy cables. The most commonly known line of WiFi hardware is probably the Apple Airport series which has spread through design studios and people's homes over the last few years as a fancy gadget that goes so well with this fancy designer computer. Based on the success and commercial acceptence of those nifty little gadgets a number of commercial interests stepped in and tried to make the big bucks from this new networking technology. The idea was to step out of the hotel suites, executive boardrooms and graphic design studios and provide the same service on a larger scale. So far most of them failed on that level or at least did not prove to be the instant remedy against the profit slump after the dotcom crisis everyone may have hoped for. The reason for that may as well lie in some intrinsic aspects of this technology.

How does it work?

WiFi is based on microwave transmission at a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz. In fact, that's the same frequency range a microwave-oven runs on. Still, your wireless hardware will not cook your food - or you - because it runs on a much lower gain, both for security reasons and because of legal restrictions which will be adressed later. On this quite narrow high resolution band, data is transmitted much like it is via network cables via 13 distinct channels. Ok, to be fair, there are differences to network transmission via cable, but at the moment the technical details do not matter so much, so you are free to assume, that wireless networking works just like a normal network with cables as far as the transmission of data and available servioces are concerned. That means, you can send email, surf the web, upload and download files and do all those other things you normally do on networks. The hardware used for that comes in various shapes: First there are wireless cards: They are usually PCMCIA cards (those are the small credit-card shaped things you can slide into laptops) and lately you can get them in PCI versions too (Those are the postcard sized or larger things you can stick into your desktop computer) and external USB adapters you can connect to a computer with the right port. These cards include a small transceiver and a small integrated antenna and/or a plug to connect an external antenna. If you have two computers with such cards, you can already make a connection and - let's say - play a multi-user game with another person or exchange data over the link. If you arrive at more than two computers, another piece of hardware comes into play: The accesspoint or basestation. This usually is a small box - again with small antennas and/or connectors fo r larger external antennas - that works much like a switch in a wired network environment would work. That is, the accesspoint interconnects two or more computers with eachother. Most of those boxes also feature a port for a standard CAT-5 network cable to connect a wireless network with a downlink into an existing cable-based network like your own network at home or the internet.

Theoretically all those pieces of WiFi hardware can be set into three different modes. Those are called Managed, Master and AdHoc. A device in AdHoc mode will connect to any other device that is also set AdHoc or is set to Master mode. Setting a device to Master mode will make it work as an accesspoint so it accepts connections and establishes interconnections between more than one connection partner. Managed mode devices will connect to an available access point and allow the access point to connect it with other machines in Managed mode. So, if you want to connect two computers with eachother, you would have to set both to AdHoc. This is the wireless equivalent of a crossed network cable connection in the wired sphere. If you want to connect more than two computers with eachother, you would have to set one of them to be Master and all others to be Managed. This corresponds to a setup with a hub or switch and several computers connected through cables via such a device. Because, naturally, theoretical things usually look different in practical implementation, not all wireless devices actually support all modes. Many cards you get to plug into a computer do not support Master mode which is mostly reserved for the basestation boxes which often do not offer you the possibility to switch modes at all. Certain cards _do_ support Master mode though, so, if you want a card that can be used as accesspoint too, do some research on the available hardware first. Most webpages of wireless communities feature hardware comparisons, advice and reports on performance, therefore, the prospective wireless afficionado can get a vast amount of information and practical advice ranging from bying wireless card up to and including building your own wireless hardware. Not all of those nice features are available to all users though. Based firmly in the commercial sphere, operating systems such as Windows in all it's variations and MacOS will not allow you to mess around with your wireless hardware overly much. For many of those who do not only want to use, but also build wireless networks, Linux has therefore become the operating system of choice. Another one of those nice theoretical assumptions is, that all those wireless devices should use the same transmission standard, but the great thing about standards is, that there are so many to choose from. So these days we have three different WiFi standards which are called 802.11 a, 802.11b and 802.11g. The first two of those are totally incompatible with eachother and neither will interoperate with the hardware of the other. 802.11g is downward compatible to 802.11b, that means it can interoperate with hardware of the other standard. The g standard is the newest and most effective one, it provides a maximum of 54 Mbit connectivity as compared to the 10 Mbit maximum of 802.11b, but the hardware is still rather expensive. 802.11b is the most widely used, and hardware for that standard gets cheaper almost every day with wireless cards now being available for prices around 30EUR, only a few years ago a comparable card would have cost almost ten times as much. Regardless of the standard, the bandwidth offered is vastly higher than on any DSL line available for private home-use, and it was only a question of time until some home-users realized this.

Let's get Connected

So why does business not like it? Well, WiFi has a few security problems. First of all, an accesspoint broadcasts it's willingness to accept connections up to it's full transmission range, and if you do not place your access point in an electromagnetically insolated room with thick walls and no windows, this will extend beyond the walls of the site where the access point is. Anybody within this area will be able to connect to your wireless network! You can set a password to prevent immediate access the network, but it is trivial for everyone who knows how to use wireless technology to just get that password from the airwaves. To make that a little more difficult there is a small security feature included called WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol) which encrypts the traffic on the network so you can't read the password. However, the key for this encryption has to be transmitted on the network first, and that means it is easy to break the encryption. Those are the reasons why it is quite difficult for businesses to make sure that everyone who uses their wireless network will actually pay for it. Of course, it is possible to encrypt and secure the transmitted network traffic as such and build complicated systems of subscription. Obviously this requires a lot of expertiese, a lot of work and a lot of administrative overhead, and that cuts into profits. There are people - however - who have no problem with others using their wireless network. Actually, some of them find it nice that they can share their internet connection with neighbours. For them the security leaks and free connectivity of the WiFi standard do not constitute a problem but a possibility: The possibility of sharing connectivity without administrative requirements like the installation and administration of user accounts and issuing of passwords. It is like living on a piece of land, and if you want to keep people out you will have to invest in a fence, if you do not care who enters, then you safe yourself the trouble. First, there were only a few people with access points who would share bandwidth with their immediate neighbours. Soon people would connect larger antennas to their access points and cover larger areas. Eventually those small cells would reach eachother and begin to form a community. One of the oldest such community is Seattle Wireless which came into being in 2000. Today it features tens of access point nodes and connects hundreds of users with eachother and the internet. Another Wireless Leiden which was founded in 2001 in the Netherlands and now covers the whole town of Leiden with broadband access otherwise only available through DSL or Cable connection. Wireless Leiden shows the real feature of such community networks quite clearly because this network provides access to people outside of the metropolitan area who would not have the opportunity to even get broadband access for lack of commercial suppliers out there in the countryside. On a symposium about wireless technology in Amsterdam 2002, where people of Seattle Wireless and Wireless Leiden participated, the project Amsterdam-Wireless was conceived and has since grown from an experimental stage into an ambitious project that is featured by the press as an alternative to plans for communal broadband access suggested by city officials. The group in the UK even has the ambitious project of integrating wireless communities all over Britain.

The purpose of such networks is not simply the provision of free internet for everyone who can afford the hardware to participate. It is also intended to exist parallel and as a substitute to the commercial or municipal internet providers, to create an autonomous and communal communication infrastructure. On the aforementioned Amsterdam symposium a member of Wireless Leiden reported, that the data volume going across their wireless network is alread y greater than the data volume exchanged between all their participants and the internet itself. Filesharers with peer-to-peer applications find a network which is a safe haven from the persecution of the RIAA and other such authorities; groups of friends can have shared connections without having to deal with intermediate internet providers and their lack of technical support, the network is theirs; online gamers do not have to deal with the timelags of commercial internet service anymore which routes them ten times around the city because their different networks do not directly connect to eachother; people who want to run their personal services online will not have to deal with provider contracts that require them to pay a surcharge if they want to run their own server, and all it takes to join is an expenditure of about 100 EUR and some time to learn how everything works. As far as the link to rest of the internet is concerned, all these community networks are built around central nodes where someone or some group has a downlink to an internet line. Joining together as a group, people can afford better and faster connections than each of them individually would be able to pay, and share those connections. Thus it will not happen, that a group of ten to fifteen users sharing a downlink really bring the line down. This way an autonomous network community grows, which alleviates the depersonalizing aspects of internet use by bringing the people together in person and in their daily lives. Wireless communities engage in meetings, they spread knowledge among their participants through frequent workshops, people join in teams to climb roofs and mount antennas and they help eachother with their computing troubles. Those communities are built up by the people for eachother, and the very notion of this possibility inspires many a participant with some enthusiasm, which is why those communities are very open and active in spreading information about themselves and how to join with them. The Other Side: The autonomy and the lack of control over user behaviour and identity in those networks make them something which the authorities behind many recent communications laws in the USA and the EU certainly do not like. Ever more restrictive legislations about user tracking and what is allowed on the net and what isn't do not really carry over into those independent networks, many of which do not even have the means to control who their users are and what they are doing. In certain countries, this has already lead to restrictions: In the USA, not the full spectrum of the already very narrow 2.4 Ghz band is allowed for use. In France, legislation requires a special permit to allow wireless access to be spread beyond home or office, and virtually all legislations that are aware of the technology restrict the gain allowed for antennas so that transmissions cannot extend too far or become so strong that they could interfere with something considered more important. And there are things considered more important by the authorities. Wireless technology might not be the newest cash cow for business, but the military certainly is interested in it. The aforementioned French legislation is based on the fact that the technology is restricted for military use, and new solutions are developed in the USA by a company called MITRE which are to be used for tactical communications in the field by US military forces and intelligence operatives.

At the end of the Spectrum

At the moment, wireless communities are a very promising new feature of modern community culture that emancipates itself from large commercial and governmental providers and tries to escape the stranglehold both government and commerce try to put on some aspects of data transmission and usage of networking technology under the auspices of crime prevention and investigation or patent laws and market regulations. At the moment the freedom enjoyed and the space for maneuvering in that field is still rather unrestricted. It has proven in the past, that the massive spread and use of certain means, methods or technologies have made them a standard that legislation, commercial effort and even force have a hard time to get rid of. If the wireless communities become an accepted feature of everyday life, people will not easily give it up again, and as long as we are free to spread it among the people, we should. You could be the next participant in a wireless community! Maybe one already exists in your neighbourhood? Like all technologies, WiFi is not in itself good or bad, but lends itself to many different applications, the question is what we will use it for? Will we use it for ourselves to build autonomous structures for communication, or will we rather leave the possibilities of such new technology to military forces so they may one day be used against us?

References: WECA MITRE Corporation Guerilla Net Community Wireless Seattle Wireless Leiden http:/ Wireless Communities in Amsterdam Wireless Anarchy Resources Antenna DIY Linux Wireless HOWTO

This article was originally published in the Green Pepper issue on Information 2003