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Free Beer and Wi-Fi
Simon Sharwood, www.theage.com.au

Free wireless internet is one of the recurring themes of the digital age. It's a just-over-the-horizon myth of the utopian CBD, where we open our notebooks and are instantly online, thanks to the generosity of a major corporation, the vision of a government or the canny plans of an entrepreneur.

But within months it might be a reality in Australia, although the reality of "free" connections is most likely to be that someone's paying for it, somehow.

The most visible of the would-be free wireless players is the NSW Government, which announced last year that it would blanket central Sydney's central business district and other business with free wi-fi signals.

The proposal calls for hot spots to be set up in the Sydney CBD, North Sydney, Gosford, Liverpool, Newcastle, Penrith, Parramatta, and Wollongong.

The sales pitch promises it will make Sydney a more attractive place in which to do business and an easier place in which to be a tourist. It echoes ideas floated by many US cities, where local authorities see wi-fi as generating similar benefits.

But while announcements such as Google's intention to cover all of San Francisco with free wi-fi have made headlines around the world, few major-city networks have actually begun.

Community wireless portal muniwireless.com lists 79 metropolitan wi-fi networks in the US, but none in big cities: Buffalo, New York, and Google's home of Mountain View, California, are the most prominent.

Bigger towns like Los Angeles and Vancouver appear on its list of 49 CBD wi-fi hot zones, while technology hot spot San Francisco is one of 149 cities currently planning or deploying their networks.

In other words, even in the US, widespread wi-fi is still just a promise rather than a reality.
Sydney is in a similar position. Fifteen companies have offered to build its network, the NSW Department of Commerce said late last month. But no start date for the network is mentioned, leaving free wi-fi from Melbourne company 802! as Australia's most likely next source of free connections.

802! already operates 13 nodes in Melbourne and the company's principal, Vasil Vasiliades, says he is nearing the announcement of a nationwide network of more than 1100 hot spots that will cover most metropolitan areas and larger regional towns with free internet signals, funded by advertising.

Mr Vasiliades says no regulatory approval is needed for the service, which will force users to watch what he calls "a TV-quality advertisement" every 30 minutes.

"This style of ad generates a 10 per cent to 20 per cent click-through rate," he says, claiming this rate is ahead of competing advertising formats and will make the service viable without users needing to pay for the service.

Mr Vasiliades chose the ad-funded model because "we're not interested in running billing systems". Nor is he interested in peer-to-peer applications, as he recognises their potential to consume vast quantities of bandwidth. "You'll be able to stream video but we are cutting out BitTorrent."

Another free wi-fi model comes from regional communities such as Queensland's Springfield, which has added a mesh wi-fi network to its existing wired networks.

"We are building a city that is driven by technology," says Springfield Land Corporation chairman Maha Sinnathamby. Springfield already has a "dark fibre" network for high-speed land-based internet and adding wi-fi to the mix is a natural extension.

Other communities are turning to wireless because it offers them a cheaper, faster way to bring broadband to their citizens.

"For us, it is all about extracting cost for business," says Lynda Summers, deputy chairwoman of the Murray Regional Development Board and chairwoman of the Murray ICT Committee, who started out looking for a fixed network to connect businesses in Albury and Wodonga to the internet.

"We wanted to see what we could do as a community to make sure we remain at the forefront of the economy," she says. "We interviewed carriers and all of them wanted certain levels of customers locked in before they would build a network and they would be reselling Telstra anyway." Neither would Telstra upgrade local infrastructure, leading the two cities to wireless thanks to funding from Multimedia Victoria. That body funded a technology trial that saw Wodonga and Albury build an IP CDMA 2000 network providing local loop telephony and free wi-fi access in business districts.

The network cost less than $1 million to construct, with much of that cost met by carriers Soul and AAPT. Work on a pre-WiMax network began in 2004 but the wi-fi component was added last October.

Ms Summers says the wi-fi access was used "mainly by tourists and workers with laptops", the latter using the network for email and virtual private network access.

She hopes local councils will eventually become users, too, enabling mobile services that would improve efficiency. "Parking tickets could go wireless," she says, acknowledging that this might not be the most popular application for wireless broadband but nevertheless can result in productivity improvements.

"Our productivity assessment demonstrations show that if the network were used on behalf of local government, which becomes a key driver and anchor tenant, the productivity gain alone is significant for the region," she says. "We get a triple bottom-line outcome. But the problem we have with the carrier model is that it is all about bottom line for the carriers only."

Ms Summers sees community-built and owned wi-fi and other wireless technologies having the potential to wire regional centres without need for more subsidies and recriminations. She is now about to promote the model she has tested at Australia's first conference on public broadband, to be held in Sydney on May 18, where she hopes other government bodies will learn from the Albury-Wodonga example and share other plans for free wireless networks.

While some community wireless networks are driven by local government, networks are also springing up driven purely by the enthusiasm of amateurs. Users of these networks connect to each other, rather than compete with internet service providers, and use their connections for free VoIP, LAN gaming and sharing data.

Participants are volunteers and use off-the-shelf wi-fi equipment, which they configure so that each wi-fi device's coverage overlaps and eventually becomes seamless across large areas.

The networks can become huge. Brismesh.org lists 340 nodes in assorted stages of development. Melbourne Wireless (melbourne.wireless.org.au) has 162 operational nodes, 141 being tested and a further 85 being built, and 247 people interested in creating new nodes. The group co-ordinates group purchases of equipment for would-be participants, achieving economies with its buying power.

Another community wireless network is Bathurst Wireless in NSW, where convener Bob Paton says the network is used by around 50 locals. Network gaming is the most popular application.
The network is home-brewed, and members have installed a solar-powered access point in a field and another atop Mount Panorama, location of the city's famed motor-racing circuit, where it draws power from a local radio's transmission facilities. The result is coverage for most of Bathurst, save for a couple of hard-to-reach areas.

Mr Paton says he has approached local businesses and institutions like Charles Sturt University in the hope of extending the network. But he says the university has not been particularly interested in the idea, a response that seems a typical response to community wi-fi networks.

Unfortunately an idea driven by the enthusiasm of part-time hobbyists is at risk when that interest wanes. Ballarat's community wireless in regional Victoria recently announced it will soon cease its service and webpage (ballaratwireless.net) due to lack of interest in the project.

Administrator "Flyman" posted to the site that "I simply don't have the time for Ballarat wireless any more, I strongly doubt freenets will ever take off and they definitely will never replace the internet, people are simply too greedy for that".

There is also opposition to grand-plan ideas such as that of the NSW Government.

"Quite frankly, I do not understand the purpose or intent of the NSW initiative," says David Havyatt, head of public affairs at provider AAPT. "There's no lack of broadband, even though current wi-fi operators are expensive. Who are the disadvantaged users to justify government expenditure on wi-fi coverage? Where is it on the economic scale of needs?

"A free wireless broadband network could wind up with a lot of businessmen using the network instead of their own."

Other carriers' responses to the Sydney scheme are also cool. Optus congratulated the Government on the idea but Telstra public affairs staff immediately questioned how the Sydney network would be paid for, as did Unwired's CEO, David Spence. After the expression of interest process began, Telstra's response to Next's inquiries about its attitude to the network comprised a statement that "Telstra is always keen to work with the Government and ensure maximum consumer and business benefit from the range of wireless broadband services that we already offer - ranging from the Next G network, to large-scale wi-fi in Sydney's CBD."

At least one telco is willing to say it is in favour of the project, but not because it necessarily likes the idea of free wi-fi. A spokeswoman from Hutchison Telecoms' 3 mobile operation says the company favours the project, as it is likely to boost overall demand for wireless internet, which 3 hopes to cash in on with its own offering.

And that hope may be prescient, given one expert's warnings about the likely results of metropolitan-scale wi-fi deployments.

"Through its own success, 802.11 (wi-fi) could kill itself," warns Bjorn Landfeldt, a senior lecturer at Sydney University's School of Information Technologies and a research fellow at the Smart Internet CRC.

Dense 802.11 deployments work well when traffic is bursty and sporadic, such as when a user requests a webpage. But if multiple users use applications like VoIP that generate constant traffic, overlapping networks' performance can plummet as they all compete for finite spectrum resources.

"802.111 was not constructed for wide-scale, dense deployments. There are research groups all around the world looking at solutions to these problems. The aim is to maintain the simplicity and cheapness of 802.11.

"But how to do it is very much an open research question and we will not have a good answer to this for a few years. Hopefully that will coincide with the times we get real problems with 802.11."

Thankfully, NSW's tender calls for plans to go beyond wi-fi for future versions of the network. WiMax is mentioned as a possible successor and would-be providers are asked to offer a three-year road map of upgrades.

Tellingly, the EOI also asks respondents to provide information on their billing capabilities and asks them to "clearly indicate options for . . . billing premium services" - which calls into question whether metropolitan wi-fi networks will ever be completely free.

That leaves 802! and community wireless initiatives as the best chances for free access. But with Mr Vasiliades yet to announce his partner, US efforts nascent and the likes of Albury-Wodonga only at pilot stage, free wireless seems to be a way off yet.