The Personal Telco Project is a Portland nonprofit dedicated to the idea that people should have a bigger say in how their electronic networks are operated.
They began in 2000 by turning people’s houses and apartments into wireless hotspots (or “nodes”), and then set about building networks in public locations such as parks and coffee shops. If you’ve tried to connect to a wireless network while at a local cafe, chances are you’ve connected to one of these.
Here’s a google map that shows the expansive reach of their current nodes (green) and also locations that are listed as a potential note (yellow):
Zoom out and you’ll see that the network reaches into Gresham, Beaverton, and Vancouver, Washington. There is a more interactive map on their website.
How does it work? Their website describes the network as simply local businesses and individuals who have voluntarily opted to share their wireless signal. Participants only need to modify their router settings to unlock access and let members of the community know that they are part of the Personal Telco network. This makes your network public but Personal Telco volunteers can help you if you want to keep parts of your network private. With a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, volunteers have also been able to initiate new hotspots:
Personal Telco believes that telecommunications should be driven by the community, not corporations. Companies like Comcast, for example, can set very high rates for their internet services, partially due to a legal loophole by defining what they offer as “entertainment” rather than communications. Legalese does a very good job of illustrating how the corporate world has no interest in the participatory potential of new technologies.
Like many cities, Portland has watched wireless initiatives come and go, with MetroFi being one of the larger services to end its operations last year. The private company won the city’s bid to cover the metropolitan area but their business model of using advertising to fund their service had failed. The network they began to build around Portland has left a number of their transmitters behind, which has led some to suggest that a community-driven effort, such as Personal Telco, put them to good use. The hardware will be considered forfeit if MetroFi does not remove them by April, which is very unlikely at this point.
“Everybody knows the MetroFi network was not terribly efficient” says Michael Weinberg, the president of the Personal Telco Project, who I had the chance to speak with. “They didn’t put enough of [the transmitters] up. The units would work perfectly well if they were deployed much more densely,” he says. If the city decides to take them down he recommends they be re-deployed more densely and using DSL connections via rooftops “rather than paying the money for the city utility poles.”
Clearwire is another corporation to enter the scene. They’re offering a fast connection for users who pay for their wireless service via an external card you insert into your computer. Michael had expressed dismay on the Personal Telco blog that the Clearwire use policy did not allow the sharing of a connection; in effect, forbidding the use of the service for hotspot nodes the way Personal Telco does. However, Clearwire later corrected him, stating that sharing is allowed.
Regardless of Clearwire’s potential uses, Michael reminds his readers that “the best way to have a communications infrastructure that is responsible to your needs is to build it yourself.”
You can listen to Bram Pitoyo and myself interview Michael on KBOO’s The Digital Divide.
I’m headed to Austin’s SXSW Technology conference soon and last year they hosted a great talk on this subject. You can listen to it here.
- A Restaurant Worker’s Survival Guide
- DIY in 2009
- Wikipedia Stands Up to FBI’s Take Down Notice
- Bicyclists: The Portland Guardian Angels Want You!
- Giving eWaste a New Life