A parasitic grid? At these rates?

by David Sims

Rob Flickenger, our system administrator at O'Reilly Network, is also our local wireless guru. After setting up an 802.11b wireless network, Rob went on to co-found
NoCat wireless community network with another O'Reilly developer, Schuyler Erle. NoCat is one of a growing number of community wireless networks that aim to offer free wireless coverage in limited areas. The movement has garnered a lot of press, including a recent InfoWorld article by Ephraim Schwartz that quoted a source referring to them as "parasitic grids." I asked Rob what he thought of that term.

P2P and Web Services Speaker

Rob Flickenger will talk about "Wireless Community 802.11b Networks" at the O'Reilly
Conference on Peer to Peer and Web Services
, Sept. 18th-21 in
Washington, D.C.

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Rob: That was funny. I laughed and laughed. It doesn't feel very parasitic every month when I pay my DSL bill. There's nothing parasitic about a community network. The bandwidth is paid for. People are taking their existing connections and letting other people share it. There's nothing new.

I think what has people scared is that, as I know and others know, bandwidth is significantly oversold. If everybody wanted to request their 384 kilobits or their 1.5 Mbps at the same time, you'd have the same thing happening that you had in the twenties with the run on the banks. The infrastructure can't support it, even though it's sold as such. I think that's where the fear is coming from on the telco side.

But the fact remains that I signed a contract that says that I'm due 384 kilobits, on the average over a month, and dammit, I'm going to use them. They're mine to do with as I please.

I think the "parasitic grid" term is just a smoke screen that gets people in the 3G world scared, as well they should be.

Dave: I think of them as entirely different uses. I think of 3G as being for a PDA on steroids, or an iPAQ. But maybe it's the same thing.

Rob: It could be. 802.11 isn't very well suited for that. There are a lot of things that it doesn't do well, like roaming. Anything that we're doing with community stuff is just a hack to make it seem like you can roam from node to node.

The thing that 3G is going to have over 802.11 is ubiquity. If you can have these tiny little devices, and you can have them everywhere, well there's something to be said for that, even if they're only at 20 Kbps. That's terrific.

With the community LANs right now, people are concentrating on hot spots: we have downtowns, we've got the coffee shop, we've got the places we hang out. We've lit up a couple of apartment buildings here and there. But it's not like you have access everywhere in the city where you might happen to be, like you have with most cell phones. That's going to be the real strength of 3G, I think.

Dave: I actually thought the fellow from Wayport had a good point in that InfoWorld article. He sees the networks as a good thing for them, because it makes 802.11 more ubiquitous. It makes it more likely that someone will have a wireless card. He said there are places where it's going to be free, and there are places where it's going to cost, and that's where you'll find Wayport. And that seems fair enough. Because you can't get community networks into an airport, for example.

Rob: Yeah, I definitely have nothing against people who are trying to make money selling captive portal access. More power to them. But if there are people in that area who are willing to share their access, more power to them, too.

Dave: What are you talking about at the upcoming P2P conference in Washington, D.C.?

Rob: The session's on
community wireless, and we came up with a way to decentralize the responsibility of administering a community network. It's the multi-level marketing scheme idea, which is, rather than have a couple of administrators who are responsible for saying this person is a co-op member but this person isn't, and that person is, but I don't like them, we set it up so that anyone who is a coop member is able to sponsor other coop members. So if you want to be a part of this network, you register and say, "Hey make me a part of this network." Now you're "public" class. Public class users typically have restricted access to networks and very restricted access to ports, because we don't know who you are, and we don't know if you're going to abuse the network.

Once you've become a cooperative member, then you're granted further access, up to the amount that the person who's running the node deems appropriate.

So if I have an ISDN line, and I don't want just anybody hogging it, I can say, "I'll give the coop members 12 K, but I'll only give the public class members 2 K." It serves as an incentive to get people to become cooperative members.

As it is right now, somebody has to make that decision, and that somebody pretty much has universal access to everyone's account. The idea we came up with is, anybody who's a coop member can sponsor other people. When you log in, you're notified that this many people are pending, they want access, do you want to grant them further access? That's what I'll be talking about.