PORTLAND, ORE. — On the surface, it looks like an ordinary weeknight gathering of aimless guys. A dozen men on a back porch chew thick slices of delivered pizza between rat-a-tat banter. One wears a bandanna. Another sports a John Deere T-shirt. Several have counterculture beards.
But beneath the raffish exterior lie some high-watt minds. The talk is about bandwidths and binary codes.
Meet the geeks, a selective handful of Portland's brightest computer science gurus who gather weekly at Node 236 - aka Tom Higgins's house - to discuss all things wireless. They are modern-day freedom fighters trying to encourage people to host wireless connections to the Internet, with the hope of eventually unplugging the entire city.
The idea: If enough people share bandwdith and a spot on their window ledge for a small radio antenna, eventually anyone in the city will be able to go online free. It's a new form of civic activism - driven by computer programmers who want to pool their collective knowledge for the greater good.
"It's not necessarily about giving [Internet access] away for free," says Aaron Baer, the treasurer for Personal Telco. "It's more about trying to build a community, and allowing the local community to build infrastructure for communication."
Wireless fidelity (wi-fi), whether free or not, is a movement that's catching on across the country, but particularly in the Northwest. Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., are among the four most "unwired" cities in the country (Austin, Texas, ranks third), according to a recent Intel survey.
Others are well on their way to adopting similar free access alternatives, sometimes with city funding. San Jose, Calif., and Alexandria, Va., for instance, have recently launched small-scale projects that offer up three or four free 'hot spots' (an access point where people can log onto the Internet wirelessly). Philadelphia and Minneapolis have plans to go completely wireless.
Seattle considered blanketing its center with free access, but local residents and businesses already paying for the services have created a de facto patchwork of access points, rendering a formal push for wireless almost moot. Ditto for San Francisco and Portland.
Despite the good intentions, opening wide the gates to high-speed Internet connections at little or no cost to users is drawing complaints from business owners and telecommunication companies who do charge for their service. But these are still the cowboy days of wireless fidelity with few rules and regulations, giving volunteer groups like Portland's Personal Telco and Seattle Wireless ample opportunity to continue building their home-grown empires.
"We're not just building hot spots, we're building a network across Portland," says Mr. Higgins. "If the Internet ever fell away, this network would still be up."
With help from Personal Telco, community members and businesses can become wireless hot spots, or a "node," for a typical fee of $50 to $100 a month. Small radio towers are installed on the owner's property that allow anyone with a receiver within a 300-foot radius to log on to the Internet free of charge. At the moment, the group says it has more than 100 active nodes throughout the city.
"The thought is that as we build a community we can say, 'Hey, can we get on your roof and put an antenna up there?' " says Mr. Baer, who is involved with a grant to set up subsidized access points in Portland's less-privileged neighborhoods.
But the free wi-fi movement doesn't always find warm reception. While some see getting everyone online as a community-building venture, others think too much wi-fi could actually have the opposite effect.
Victrola Coffee & Arts cofounder Jen Strongin, one of the first in Seattle to offer free wi-fi a few years ago, has chosen to cut back on the service on weekends, bemoaning a total lack of interaction between cafe goers. On the weekends, she says, most tables are filled with people who camp out with laptops up to eight hours a day without talking to anyone.
Service providers such as Verizon aren't that keen on the idea of sharing access points either. They'd rather have everyone on Tom Higgins's block pay for their own access instead of hitching a ride on his.
As the concept of free wi-fi spreads, however, fee-based providers are facing the reality that blanket service through a smaller number of nodes may be the future.
"It's like water," says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of WiFi Alliance in Austin, Texas. "Sometimes you drink from the drinking fountain and it's free, sometimes you'd rather pay $3 for a bottle of water."
Starbucks, for instance, charges its customers around $9 a day for its T-Mobile wireless access, but it advertises superior security and reliable service. Because free services can be spottier and less secure, Mr. Hanzlik thinks that demand for fee-based services won't disappear anytime soon.
But for now, the thrill of seeking out and sharing free wi-fi appeals to the renegade spirit that pulses through most technophiles. In fact, exploring other people's access points has become known as "wardriving" and leaving a trail of graffiti to mark those points as "warchalking."
In some cities, hot spots can be found in the most unexpected places - bowling alleys, retirement centers, golf resorts, and retro arcades. But in the Northwest, coverage is so widespread that it can be hard to not stumble into access.
Casey Halverson, a wireless network engineer in Seattle, has taken the possibility of wireless coverage one step further. In order to "telecommute" during his train ride from Tacoma, he created a mobile access point on his laptop, using a small, embedded Linux computer with a cellular and wi-fi card. He pays Sprint $80 a month for the service.
One day he decided to share his connection, to see if anyone else might try to access it from the train. To his surprise, six users logged on within a matter of minutes. Mr. Halverson decided to turn it into a full-blown service, offering a splash screen, which announces it is OK to use his access, and then a news portal with local weather and 911 feeds.
"I'm a hacker, but I'm not mischievous," says the Wireless Seattle member. "Everything we're doing is 100 percent legal. Because we're doing things that are so cutting edge and new, people are suspicious, but we're just trying to bend what's possible with technology."
Halverson says he's no hero: "We're not entirely crazy, spending all this money just to let other people ride on our Internet service. A lot of people are just saying, 'I have the technical skills to do this, and I can afford the hardware, so what can I do with this?' Frankly, if I was the only person using it it wouldn't be any fun."
Darrin Eden, president of Personal Telco, agrees that part of the allure of his group is a mere byproduct - social interaction. "One of the neatest things for me is that it really brings together a lot of hyper-intelligent people who have a lot of creative ideas they want to get out there and try," he says. "It just attracts a really interesting group of people who are really curious and want to advance the cause as quickly as possible."
In a world where "interconnectedness" says more about local area connections than weekly pizza nights, even the movement's most eager promoters want to meet beyond the reaches of their keyboards.
The following cities have been identified as having the most spots where people can connect to the Internet without wires. The 'hot spot' locations range from cafes and hotels to skate parks and gas stations.
1. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett-Tacoma, Wash.
2. San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland, Calif.
3. Austin-San Marcos, Texas
4. Portland, Ore. - Vancouver, Wash.
5. Toledo, Ohio
6. Atlanta, Ga.
7. Denver, Colo.
8. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.
9. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
10. Orange County, Calif.
source: Intel Corp.