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June 9th, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

Free for All.

How a brainy Brit and an army of idealists are leading Portland to Internet Nirvana.

     
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In Boston, they dressed up like Indians and chucked tea into the harbor.

The French stormed a prison.

In Portland, they... bolted a box to a pole on top of a college dorm?

The Box - thin, beige and about as wide and tall as a toaster - sits atop Portland State University's Ondine dorm on Southwest 6th Avenue. It beams a radio signal across the Willamette to the east side.

Not very sexy. Yet some think the Box marks the beginning of an Internet sea change.

Right now, Qwest will sell you a dial-up account for $18.95 a month. Comcast would be delighted to provide broadband for $55.95. Can't pay? The library is at 10th and Taylor.

But picture this: The blip from the Box grows to blanket Portland. The transmission delivers the Internet through thin air, to any desk. boudoir or handheld gadget in reach.

For free.

It's not just some techno-commie pipe dream. Portland State and Oregon Health & Science University are funding the Box, which they installed this spring, to gauge how strong and long its signal can go. The city of Portland is watching eagerly.

Behind the experiment lies a radical notion: that the Internet is as important to Portlanders as water, power or paved streets. In other words, in the 21st century, the right to Google is as fundamental as the right to an education.

"The Internet should work more like a public road and less like an expensive health club," says City Commissioner Erik Sten.

Of course, in some quarters, them's fightin' words.

"If they compete with us, they can expect a competitive response," says Don Williams, Comcast's Portland spokesman.

While debate rages on over who should run Portland General Electric, the city's most prominent power company, some are thinking about the utility of tomorrow: a cloud of wireless Internet access over Portland, run for the public's benefit.

"Right now we don't really have competition for Internet access," Sten says. "It makes sense for the public to provide itself with some form of cheap access."

But if Portland becomes the first big city in the nation to blanket itself with free Internet access, the vision behind the coup won't originate with a government plan--or corporate initiative.

Instead, the trail to the Web's promised land will be blazed by a wildly enthusiastic band of volunteers known as the Personal Telco Project. And no one sums up the goals of these guerrillas--who have already installed free wireless Internet in scores of bars, cafes and parks all over town--better than a talky, opinionated, tireless Englishman named Nigel Ballard.

Ballard's not the founder or president of Personal Telco, nor is he the sole architect of the city's wireless dream. But he's right where it all comes together.

"I am," Ballard admits in his sly, south-of-England twang, "as they say, ubiquitous."

Early in the afternoon of June 5, as storm clouds ferment above, two men in mountaineer's harnesses creep along the steeply pitched roof of Hostelling International's Hawthorne Hostel. A thick nylon rock-climbing rope snakes through carabiners on both their hips, through a window and around a beam in the hostel's creaky attic.

One climber, a Frenchman named Stéphane Chatre, stands at the roof's peak, misty rain blustering around him. A self-possessed guy fluent in English and eight computer programming languages, Chatre thinks the perfect weekend campsite is a hammock slung a hundred feet up in the branches of an ancient Douglas fir. He coolly surveys the hostel's brick chimney, looking for a place to stick an antenna that can blast a radio signal deep into the surrounding neighborhood.

On the hostel's front porch, open laptops, loose cables and fancy toolboxes sprawl in an unkempt command post. A half-dozen Personal Telco Project volunteers lounge around with coffee and cigarettes, occasionally wandering out in the hostel's yard to check the climbers' progress.

"Personal Telco SWAT team practice," someone deadpans.

Nigel Ballard sits in the middle of the non-action on the porch. Two years ago, Ballard helped set up a free wireless "hotspot" at the hostel, a little bubble of Internet access powered by "wi-fi," radio that broadcasts information over limited distances. Like most such hotspots, this one covered the hostel building and not much else. Today, he's clad in a black T-shirt emblazoned with an homage to the dairy industry ads: "Got wi-fi?" (his own design). This afternoon's goal is to make sure everyone in the bungalows and businesses around the hostel can answer yes to that question.

Ballard convinced Intel to donate some gear. The local Internet company SpireTech agreed to chip in a 1.5-megabit connection. And now, PTP is creating a super-hotspot. By the end of the day, the hostel signal will reach three blocks away--and, according to Ballard, for those willing to engage in "a little antenna trickery," all the way to Mount Tabor.

The neighbors don't know free Internet's coming. That's fine with Ballard and his comrades.

"Personal Telco's philosophy has always been, 'Act first, beg for forgiveness later,'" Ballard says.

The nonprofit has never tackled a project of this reach before. But in the four years since its founding, Personal Telco has built 114 hotspots at businesses and public places. The deal is simple: PTP volunteers will "unwire" businesses willing to shell out for a DSL and a wi-fi radio on the condition that patrons can use the system for free. Personal Telco provides the Linux-powered computer to run the hotspot. Tech support falls to a volunteer, usually someone who lives within walking distance of the cafe, bar, park or other hangout.

Sounds too good to be true. "People always look at us funny, like, 'What's the angle?'" says Darren Eden, PTP's president. But it works. Thanks to Personal Telco, you can surf free in the moody darkness of Crow Bar on North Mississippi Avenue, in the beery bedlam of Thirsty Thursday at PGE Park, or at Backspace, a huge video game emporium/gallery in Old Town. Ballard estimates more than 300 people use PTP hotspots daily; the most popular locations serve dozens of users every day.

Lisa Belt of World Cup--the local coffee company with cafes at Powell's, in the Pearl District's Ecotrust building and on Northwest Glisan Street--says the mini-chain was charging customers to use its wi-fi service when Ballard approached her last year.

"I think we were making $7 a quarter," she says. "Nigel convinced us to switch. We were afraid people would come and just hang out all day, playing Dungeons and Dragons or something."

Instead, she says, free wi-fi lured a new crop of very good customers.

"People come in to work," she says. "They look at this as an extension of their work lives. And they are very good about not being freeloaders."

As its hotspots mushroomed around town, Personal Telco's monthly meetings grew from a half-dozen pint-hoisters at Lucky Lab to 10 times that number. The gatherings can include Intel designers packing next-generation laptops, jet-setting France Telecom researchers and homeless kids from Burnside shelters. The group adopted Urban Grind, a cafe in a spacious converted Northeast Portland warehouse, as unofficial headquarters.

Brenda Drain, one of Urban Grind's owners, says PTP and free wi-fi have been key for the 2-year-old cafe, which thrives in an obscure location off Sandy Boulevard.

"People call me every day and ask me, do we have Internet and how much does it cost?" Drain says. "I probably answer that question three times a day. And when I tell them it's free, they say they'll be here."

In 2003, when an Intel-sponsored study proclaimed Portland the best city in the nation for wireless access, Personal Telco got most of the credit.

"They've accomplished a tremendous amount with, basically, spit, rubber bands and shoestrings," says David Olson, the City of Portland's cable director. "Portland's reputation for wireless is fantastic, and you can largely thank Personal Telco."

The crusade isn't just about going wireless--after all, Starbucks has done that much. The coffee colossus offers wi-fi at more than 2,600 locations through a deal with the cell company T-Mobile. But at Starbucks, you have to pay $29.99 a month to surf. At Personal Telco hotspots, you don't.

And, sure, that's good for business at Personal Telco locations. But the group has loftier goals in mind. Its real preoccupation is information, and setting it free.

"The idea of building a community-run network, and being able to say to the telecom companies, 'Ha! See! We don't need you!,' seemed like an incredibly fun goal," says Adam Shand, the New Zealander who started Personal Telco in November 2000, while he was working for a doomed Beaverton dot-com. "It seemed totally feasible that anyone who wanted to be online could be."

For Ballard, getting people online isn't just a hobby. To him, it's a social crusade.

On a recent afternoon, at the wheel of his Honda Accord, air conditioning at full blast, Ballard is dressed up like England's tech-geek Johnny Cash: black shoes, black Levi's, black belt and black dress shirt to match the black specs and black hair. It's 81 degrees outside. Heat shimmers from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard's northbound asphalt.

To Ballard, this is the Portland 'hood most affected by the so-called "digital divide"--the hard truth that rich people have technology and poor people, often, don't.

"Broadband penetration is just pitiful around here," Ballard says as he hangs a left on Lombard. "Let's say I'm a teacher. OK, class, tomorrow we're learning about a dead white Englishman named William Shakespeare. Go home and Google him tonight. Maybe I can do that at Catlin Gabel--all the kids have laptops. In North Portland, a lot of kids may have seen a laptop at Best Buy.

"Look, knowledge is power," he says. "It's a cliché, but it also happens to be true. Google is the key to the secrets of the universe, right? For a lot of people, it's just a given. You have water, electricity--and broadband, of course. For a lot of people, life isn't really like that. You can buy a lot of food for $52 a month. You can't eat the Internet. There you have it--less knowledge, less power."

Ballard's conviction and charm--his elastic facial expressions would be the envy of many a comic character actor--have proved a lethal combination in his role as Personal Telco's press officer (or, as one PTP member puts it, "media whore"). The New York Times calls when it needs quick wi-fi quotes, and The Wall Street Journal cast him as the star of a story about wireless security. The same moxie helps finesse donations from the likes of Intel and AirSpan, the Florida company that provided the Box on top of Ondine.

"Nigel is the evangelist," says Oso Martín of Freegeek.org, another technology-focused Portland nonprofit. "If you want to convince someone of the goodness and rightness of something, you send Nigel. He's a hell of a nice guy, and he's very passionate. The accent doesn't hurt, either."

For this evangelist--and for Portland's burgeoning wireless scene--hotspots at coffee shops and taverns is but a start. The Box is where it is really at.

Without getting too technical, a primer: Hotspots utilize wi-fi. The Ondine project lays the groundwork for a technology called WiMAX, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, which should be to wi-fi what Jack Daniel's is to 3.2-percent-alcohol beer.

Unlike wi-fi's short-range broadcast, WiMAX is designed to carry broadband-quality signals over longer distances, miles instead of blocks. That makes this emerging technology the backbone of plans to deluge Portland with wireless.

A system of WiMAX transmitters on top of tall buildings would beam signals to wi-fi radios scattered around the city, which would relay them to waiting computers. Downtown would come first; eventually, the entire city could have wireless connectivity, something no other major metropolis in the U.S. can now claim.

The city network scheme has many details yet to be resolved, as well as a rather tangled parentage. Portland State is managing the Box; PSU, OHSU and a Reed College-based academic consortium have each kicked in $10,000 to fund the tests. A steering committee--including the city, PSU, OHSU, private and public economic development experts, Intel and Nigel Ballard--is guiding plans for the larger network.

They want it done cheap. Marshall Runkel, aide and wireless point man for Commissioner Sten, estimates that if the WiMAX and supporting wi-fi set-ups work, wireless could blanket the downtown core for about $500,000. Later this summer or early this fall, the steering committee expects to start looking for private partners to build, run and probably own a citywide wireless network.

A private company would benefit from streamlined city regulations, access to public property and the city's political backing. It would offer free access but could make money by charging for faster, deluxe connections.

The desire to swaddle Portland in invisible digits isn't entirely driven by concerns about the digital divide. Money, as ever, is a powerful incentive. As laptops, PCs, PalmPilot-style handheld gear, TV, radio and cell phones merge into a seamless new mobile paradigm, capital is expected to pour into wireless technology.

"What we're really looking at is a different model of economic development," Runkel says. "This is not saying that we're going to give $30 million tax subsidies or incentives, and then someone's going to move their headquarters here. This is more about creating an environment where lots of innovation can happen."

Ballard, who has emerged as the steering committee's resident social conscience, says he doesn't really care why or how such a network comes into being, or who runs it--which, given the bidding process in the works, could end up being a megacorp.

"I'm not out to get Comcast or out to get Qwest," Ballard says. "I'm out to get free Google to as many people as possible."

And yet there's no question that a network that exists, in part, to give Portlanders a free Internet option will unsettle powerful interests. The Net's present gatekeepers think they're doing a fine job, thanks very much.

"What happens when [the city network's] projected subscriber base is half of what they think it's going to be?" asks Comcast's Williams. "What happens when the technology shifts out from under them? Who will be there to respond to those changes on the fly?"

If push does come to shove, the city and its partners in the project would do well to keep Ballard and the zealous geeks of Personal Telco close at hand.

"I want to live in the town with more Google access per capita than anywhere in America, be you poor, be you rich," Ballard says. "And I'd like to look down the list of people who made that happen--and there are many--and see my name somewhere.

"Believe it or not," he says, "I can be kind of persuasive."


Wireless networks and public hotspots exist in other cities; Sten aide Marshall Runkel, however, says he knows of no other American city with the kind of municipal-wide system Portland's considering.

More information on Personal Telco, and a directory of its 114 public hotspots, can be found at www.personaltelco.net .

Nigel Ballard's personal website, which contains extensive information about wi-fi and other wireless technology, is www.joejava.com .

"Wireless fidelity" is the zippy name for technology officially known as 802.11. Wi-fi and WiMAX--a.k.a. 802.16--both operate on sections of the radio spectrum not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

A team of sociologists working for France Telecom visited Portland in recent weeks. According to Ballard, they're interested in adapting Personal Telco's approach to create a hotspot network in a Parisian arrondissement.

Adam Shand, Personal Telco's founder, now lives back in New Zealand, where he runs the computer system for The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's filmmaking empire.

Nigel Ballard's 14-year-old son, Josh, still lives in Bournemouth, England. The two often communicate via Internet phone.

Current plans for the Portland citywide network call for WiMAX transmitters to interlock with solar-powered, Linux-driven units containing three radios to relay the signal.

Morrow and Umatilla counties in eastern Oregon are home to an extensive wi-fi network developed through a partnership between local governments and private companies, a possible model for Portland's plans. Last week, Newsweek put Hermiston atop its list of "10 Hot Wireless Cities."

 
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