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The Commonspace

Nov 2002 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Do You Wi-Fi?
By Brian H. Marston

Grab your laptop and head to Midtown. The Commonspace and Grand Center, Inc., are teaming up to provide free public wireless Internet access in Grand Center. It will be the first wireless community network in St. Louis and one of the first of its size in the country.

Ben Hockenhull and Delmar Brimble survey the area for Wi-Fi signals from the roof of the Regional Arts Commission The idea is to create "hotspots" in parks, restaurants and other spaces where anyone with a Wi-Fi device will be able to check their email, browse the Web, and play head-to-head video games, all without wires. And that's just the start. Hopefully, people will come up with novel ways to use the bandwidth and new applications that take advantage of the peculiar nature of a network that requires you to be in the neighborhood to use it, yet lets you move around freely without losing your connection. At the very least, it will help attract computer geeks and the "creative class" to the district.

The first hotspot will be Strauss Park. The second will be indoors at The Commonspace, which will be opening at 615 North Grand in the former Crown Optical space on New Year's Eve.

According to some futurists like Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, Wi-Fi will usher in the next generation of telecommunications and change all the rules. There's something very appealing about a decentralized, bottom-up, ad hoc network that's based on sharing, unless you're a big telephone company.

It's surprisingly inexpensive to build a Wi-Fi network. The hardware is relatively cheap. In fact, you can make a usable antenna out of a Pringles can, although we'll be using a little nicer equipment in Grand Center. All the labor and know-how for this project is being provided by a great group of volunteers. Primary Network is donating the bandwidth, and Qaddisin will spearhead the effort to address network security issues.

Wi-Fi card "Wi-Fi" is short for "wireless fidelity." The IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi) networking standard allows for wireless transmission of data at broadband speeds of up to 11 Mbps using the 2.4 GHz band, the same part of the spectrum used by many cordless phones and microwave ovens. In Grand Center, the signal will be broadcast by a series of unobtrusive antennas mounted on buildings. To access the network and get on the Internet, a user will need hardware that acts like a radio to pick up the signal. Typically, this hardware takes the form of a $60 PC Card in a laptop computer, but Wi-Fi radios for PDAs, such as Palm OS and PocketPC based devices, are also available. Both PC and Mac users will be able to log on to the network. If you don't have a Wi-Fi card, you'll be able to check one out for free from The Commonspace.

If you'd like to get involved in building Grand Center's wireless network, enter your email address in the box below and click the "Submit" button to join to the project's Yahoo! Group. As a volunteer, you'll get a chance to run around on rooftops, play with neat-o toys, explore a new technology and deliver high-speed Internet access to the people. For geeks like me, it doesn't get much more fun than that.

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