Austin Wireless City Project: Community Wi-Fi
By Carlo Longino, Tue Apr 20 20:30:00 GMT 2004

Free, community-based Wi-Fi in local independent businesses. What's not to like?

The Austin Wireless City Project isn't too different from other Wi-Fi providers or aggregators in many regards: it sets up hotspots in businesses and manages the network, offering users access at a number of sites with a single login. But what sets it apart is that its volunteers do the set up for free -- venues just have to provide a Net connection and Wi-Fi access point -- and then requires the venues to provide free access.

Though plenty of places around the world offer free hotspot access, it's a pretty unique effort to link the sites together and monitor and manage the network like a commercial service, and a successful one, too. AWCP has almost 40 hotspots around town, more than T-Mobile's 35 or the 9 of Wayport (coincidentally also based in Austin), and has 75 more venues on a waiting list for installs. AWCP President Rich MacKinnon says this has helped result in more than a third of Austin's hotspots being free, compared to 1 in 20 in Boston and less than 1 in 25 in New York City or San Francisco.

As a town, Austin is very protective and supportive of local businesses, and the AWCP started with the desires of MacKinnon, an early and avid Wi-Fi user, to not see national chains dominate the hotspot access market in the town. While when he began looking around in late 2000, roughly 60 of Austin's 85 hotspots were free, none were linked together and were all dependent on each venue's geek setting up and maintaining the equipment. "Is this a grassroots movement, or just weeds?" MacKinnon wondered.

He wanted the community to take some responsibility in providing free Wi-Fi, and realized the best way to do this would be to link independent hotspots in a network to make it easier to gather information and provide support -- something that would become the key value-add for venues. While some businesses turn to aggregators like Boingo in a hope to recoup the expenses they incur in providing access, they're often left on their own in terms of installation and support -- tasks that can quickly overwhelm already taxed business owners and managers.

AWCP sets up its member access points with a PC running server software developed by Less Networks, a company MacKinnon started to support the project. The software offers venues a chance to brand the service when users log on, and also provides usage statistics, but its most important function is connecting a hotspot to the AWCP network, where volunteers monitor and support them. Each venue is then assigned a caretaker, generally a volunteer that lives near the venue or is a regular patron, that becomes their primary point of contact and support. The venues also receive marketing support from AWCP, including listings in their directory and materials to advertise that they offer Wi-Fi.

While AWCP offers a number of benefits to venues, it offers users several benefits above and beyond a commercial service, not just making it free, but also making it better. The Less Networks server software has several features all built around creating a sense of community around the venues, and reflect the changing nature of mobility, MacKinnon says, away from simply a tool to keep in touch with some place you aren't, like home or the office. "We're enabling people to communicate with people where they are," he says.

Each venue has an online forum set up for it, as well as having an on-venue chat room. The Less site lets users see who's online, and a forthcoming version of the software will enable an interactive hotspot guide, letting users see not only who's online, but how many people are online at a certain location, so if they're looking for a quiet or bustling spot, they can get an idea of the atmosphere (or at least Wi-Fi usage) at a venue.

AWCP pays off for the community as well, even beyond the free access it provides. The project uses its first deployment at a downtown bar and restaurant as an example: a local contractor did the wiring, another small local consultancy installed the router. A local printer made coasters advertising the free Wi-Fi, and new customers generated both revenue for the bar and tips for the waitstaff. The long waitlist for installations has also lead some AWCP volunteers to form a business offering paid installs for venues that don't want to wait to join, creating jobs -- something Austin still badly needs.

AWCP and Less are both driven by a strong belief in the benefits of free Wi-Fi. "Access is like a public street," MacKinnon says. "You want people to use it. If it's a free right of way, it encourages commerce." But MacKinnon is realistic, too, and says that free and paid Wi-Fi will coexist, if for no other reason than paid users often aren't paying their own bill.

But he also doesn't see why the success of AWCP can't be repeated in other cities, which indeed is one of the project's goals. While Austin does have a real affinity for its local businesses and a real desire to support them. MacKinnon says independent businesses can gain from the empowerment free Wi-Fi offers.