Wireless London
By David Pescovitz, Wed Jun 16 13:45:00 GMT 2004

A wireless activist reports from the front lines of free networking.


As the co-founder of Consume.net, the UK's first wireless community network, Julian Priest is the leading expert on London's invisible architecture of Wi-Fi. With support from the Arts Council of England, Priest has just completed The State of Wireless London, a deeply comprehensive paper that explores the past, present, and future of the city's WLAN.

"This study looks at how wireless networking (WLAN) in London has developed over the last three years from hacktivist pastime to mainstream pursuit," Priest writes. "Comparing networks built by freenetwork groups, commercial hotspot providers, and public sector initiatives, the study also examines the sales and uptake of WLAN equipment and makes some direct measurements of wireless activity in the Greater London area."

What makes this hyperlinked document particularly unique and engaging is that it's written from the perspective of a grassroots networker. In Priest's opinion, the independent DIY spirit behind wireless freenetworking rose from the ashes of the dotcom burn-out.

"Wireless freenetworking came as an antidote to the commercial pipe dreams of telcos and investors, and with its focus on the ownership of infrastructure and local and co-operative action, it can be seen as a grounding of internet utopianism in something real, useful and manageable," writes Priest.

Consume's original aim was to blanket London with free Wi-Fi based on a decentralized meshed network where ownership is distributed:

"This connection would allow collective bargaining for back haul bandwidth, and a free local infrastructure that could support local content and an autonomous media. Finally, this meshed-edge network would provide a challenge to existing telecoms providers by being able to escape from the star topology and its built-in control points."

According to Priest though, an average geek-activist-per-square-kilometer density of approximately 1.25 is needed to build such a meshed freenetwork. The current density is only .11, resulting in a "star topology" of commercial and free access points.

After surveying the freenetwork, commercial hotspot, and home network models, Priest concludes his report with a recommendation for a Wireless Festival to be held in London during 2004-2005. The six-month event would include media art exhibits, practical workshops, and a public sector wireless conference.

"Freed from the low bandwidth communications pathways of email text and telephone, festivals represent chances for a full spectrum of discourse," Priest writes.

London calling, indeed.