Internet for the People, by the People

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

S.M.'s project was doomed from the start. It was not that it was unreasonable or costly. Nor did it fail to take the obstacles that stood in the way of its realization into consideration. It was just that the man who brought up the idea at a meeting of the jointly owned apartment building in Rehovot was already branded as far as the owners were concerned.

"Since I suggested at a meeting last year that we install a biometric identification system in the entrance to the building to identify tenants by their fingerprints, I've been considered to be a strange bird," explains S.M., a 31-year-old who works in one of the major banks. "Later, at a meeting in which one of the neighbors said that she is afraid to leave the elevator and go into the dark hallway, I told them we could put in a movement detector that would automatically turn the lights on when someone exits the elevator, but they turned down the idea again," he recalls with frustration.

But S.M. did not give up. A few months ago, when he decided he would like to surf the Internet on his laptop from any location in his apartment without a cable, he suggested to the neighbors' committee that they turn the building into a wireless Internet zone. In addition to providing convenient access to the network from every location in every apartment, S.M. envisioned a system that would allow tenants to share content and file downloading. This would enable them to create a virtual bulletin board for electronic announcements, and, most important, save a considerable amount of money.

S.M. thought of everything. "The model I had in my head involved installing a wireless Internet path on every second floor, which would cover 80 to 90 percent of the area of all four apartments on each floor," he says. According to the plan, the committee would purchase one path and three amplifiers for NIS 1,500, and an ADSL line with a 2.5 megabyte bandwidth. Each tenant would pay for his own Wi-Fi (wireless Internet) card. S.M. tried to convince his neighbors that, beyond the initial one-time investment, each neighbor would pay only NIS 30 per month for Internet access.

However, the plan never came to fruition. "When I suggested the idea, they responded with hilarious laughter - just like when I suggested a biometric identification system. I live in a very heterogenous building as far as technology is concerned. My idea was only of interest to four of the tenants, who are already connected to high-speed Internet. The others are, apparently, technophobes. I was disappointed, but finally I invested in my own infrastructure and it cost me about NIS 1,000."

The neighbor's line

Two years ago, in a special edition of Wired Magazine, Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, commonly known as the "Elvis of cyberlaw," predicted similar scenarios to the one that S.M. tried to realize, without success. He spoke in favor of "returning the Internet to the users," and described a not-too-distant future in which Wi-Fi technology would transform connection to the network from an individual to a collective act. The Internet, Lessig foretold, would merely be on the air and accessible to everyone. Internet providers, according to Lessig, would have to reinvent themselves to cope with the new reality.

Lessig was partially right and partially wrong. Wi-Fi technology did become very cheap. It is commonly found in large, urban centers in the Western world, and it is quickly spreading. And while the equipment needed to hook up has become less expensive, there also has been a sharp decline in the cost of setting up a high-speed Internet connection.

It also became clear, however, that people are reluctant to part with their personal network connection. Most users are not willing to forgo 24-hour access to technical support. While neighbors might enjoy sharing the cost of wireless surfing, often they are displeased when they realize that they must also share their neighbors' bandwidth and security definitions, as well as be dependent on their neighbors when the network falls. Few are anxious to go to a neighbor's apartment at 2 A.M. to ask him to restart his Internet path, and even fewer are anxious to see their neighbor on their own doorstep with the same request.

However, Lessig was not entirely wrong. The vision that he presented, in which every user would be able to connect to the Internet from any location, is now becoming a reality in various parts of the world, albeit not in the way that he predicted. The cooperative revolution is actually starting at a municipal level, in the form of cities providing their residents with free, wireless access to the network, just like they provide other services such as trash collection.

Cities interested in promoting a young image in order to attract high-tech industry, a high-quality population and a well-endowed tax base that comes with it believe the establishment of a municipal Wi-Fi network is an excellent and relatively inexpensive form of public relations. In the last couple of years, dozens of cities around the world - from Paris and Barcelona to San Francisco, and from St.Cloud, Florida and Chaska, Minnesota to Jerusalem and Shoham in Israel - have established or announced plans to set up such a network.

However, as might be expected, not everyone is pleased by this trend. In Philadelphia, for example, when the municipality recently announced plans to connect the entire city to wireless Internet by installing paths and amplifiers on traffic lights and antennas, communications giant Verizon, which holds the local phone concession, opposed it. The company said the initiative conflicts with free-market principles and hurts its business.

The state of Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia is located, enacted a law last week allowing the city to continue its wireless project, while granting Verizon a major concession to sweeten the deal: Other local authorities in Pennsylvania will not be allowed to offer residents free communication services in the future. The precedent-setting law will obviously influence similar projects in dozens of cities throughout the United States.

Controlling hitchhikers

Director of Intel Israel's wireless computer program and one of the founders of the Jerusalem wireless Internet project, Shai Kavas, says the concern that a municipality's offering free wireless connection would result in customers' leaving their Internet providers is not considered a "hot problem." However, Intel and Golden Lines, the project's Internet service provider, installed elements in the system that prevent surfers who live in the area covered by the network from switching their home connection to the municipality's free connection.

"We did not examine whether the project poses a threat to providers, but we did check to be sure that a specific surfer will not harm the network - to use it for nefarious purposes or to cut it off," Kavas says. "But, for example, if there are law offices in the area that make considerable use of the Internet, I am interested in making their life difficult so they will not be able to throw away their connection and work using our network on a regular basis. The agreed-upon target population of all of the project's partners are those engaged in leisure, students, tourists and pedestrians - not area residents."

Kavas says that after having started the wireless network project in Jerusalem, he has conducted preliminary investigations of similar projects in Rishon Letzion, Haifa, Qiryat Ata and Ashdod. It is too early to tell if similar systems will be installed in these areas as well.

In Israel, Internet providers have yet to enlist lobbyists to fight municipal Internet connection, but they are keeping a watchful eye on related events in the United States and Europe. The assistant director of marketing at the Internet service provider (ISP) Netvision, Yoav Pridor, says that unlike in the past, ISPs have long been offering their users "bonus services" like security packages, spam and virus screening, mail services, and content services in addition to Internet connection.

"Even if the consumer gets the connection to the network somewhere else, he will still need additional services," Pridor says. "In Shoham, for example, people have Internet connection but do not have mail or support, which are, in fact, the most important things. Wireless connections will give people more access to the Internet, but they will not make providers superfluous. The municipality might have the power to implement this unilateral move, but it cannot commit itself to quality of service - certainly not when it comes to technical support. So, in this sense, it has actually become a monopoly that does not provide the service."

The assistant director of Internet marketing at the ISP Bezek International, Itai Galmor, confidently says that he does not view municipal projects that replace current Internet infrastructure in users' homes as a threat. He says the high cost of such projects will not allow municipalities to provide good services at no cost, emphasizing, "Technology can be improved only if it comes at a price."

Assistant director of marketing at Golden Lines, Noam Yaakobi, insists that he does not believe that a large municipality will offer residents free comprehensive connection. "Such a situation would hurt competition, and that, unlike the case of the wireless network in Jerusalem, which actually increases the population of users and benefits providers, would represent cannibalism in the marketplace." He also is not concerned that users who share their private connection with others will cancel their subscriptions as in the case of municipality connections.

"I am not convinced that a free connection is such an advantage as far as the consumer is concerned," Yaakobi says. "A free connection also looks like it is free, and only suits the small segment of the market that includes individuals who are absolutely willing to forgo technical support. We consider this to be the most important thing that we provide our customers. Having said that, in three years, the possibility of full coverage of municipal areas will entirely change the map. I am not concerned, but I am also not certain how the map will change."