Postcard — March 20, 2013, 10:24 am

Network Free K.C.

The Free Network Foundation takes on Google in Kansas City

Prototype tower and nodes communicating with FreedomLink at Oak Tower, which appears in the far background. Kansas City, Mo., July 2012. ©© Free Network Foundation

Prototype tower and nodes communicating with FreedomLink at Oak Tower, which appears in the far background. Kansas City, Mo., July 2012. ©© Free Network Foundation

Isaac Wilder opens a black steel cabinet on the twenty-sixth floor of Oak Tower in downtown Kansas City and shows me what he hopes will be the future of the Internet. “This is the router,” he says, pointing to a box the size of a DVD player. “The ethernet cable runs out here, up through the floor, to a dish that’s beaming a signal out to the Rosedale Ridge housing project. There’s . . . 400-plus people, who have access to the Internet for the first time, in their homes at least.”

A local nonprofit, Connecting for Good, pays the monthly $125 bill for the entire housing project. This comes out to roughly $9 per year per housing unit — a far cry from the $70 a month that these same families would spend for the new high-speed fiber optic service Google is currently rolling out in Kansas City, which I wrote about for the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s even cheaper than the slower service Google is offering, which costs $300 for seven years of guaranteed access.[*]

And that’s the point. Wilder and his organization, the Free Network Foundation, have come here to wage war with Google, which recently cut a widely-publicized deal to bring the city a next-generation fiber optic network, and which turned down Connecting for Good’s proposal to allow multiple low-income families to share a single Google Fiber connection. It’s clearly going to be a guerilla campaign. Wilder, twenty-two, is a college dropout who wears stained Carhartt jeans and sports a thick strawberry-blond beard that seems better suited to a trapper than to an Internet pioneer.

“The one clear rule,” Wilder says of FNF’s philosophy, “is that the Internet should be treated as a commons, the same way that we treat our sidewalks or our air or our water. Everybody’s got a right to use it on the same terms.”

To do this, the foundation advocates the use of decentralized “mesh” networks that rely on microwave dishes to distribute a powerful wireless Internet connection. Wilder calls these dish-and-router assemblies FreedomLinks. Community groups can pool their resources, buy equipment to receive the signal, and distribute it to their residents. Because mesh networks share their signal and bypass the capital expense of installing copper or fiber-optic cable, they’re much cheaper than buying access from corporate providers like Google or Time Warner.

Wilder and his partner, Tyrone Greenfield, first set up a mesh network at New York City’s Zuccotti Park, to give Occupy Wall Street protesters access to the Internet. To Wilder and Greenfield, the Google Fiber project illustrates the dangers of letting private companies control digital access. Google might claim to be interested in expanding Internet access to the poor, but its real goal is to monetize the data their network can collect from its users. As proof, Wilder cites the terms of Google’s contract with both Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. “You can’t hook your own server up to Google Fiber,” he says. “So if you do want to publish something, the easiest choice is going to be through Google’s own services. This creates a sort of locked-in environment where somebody is using a piece of Google hardware, on a Google network, using Google services. You know every detail of their habits. Every detail of what they’re reading.”

Wilder’s network, by contrast, consists of castoff Dell servers and Cisco routers that he picked up on the cheap. He and two core members of the FNF, Charles Wyble and James Yox, have spent thousands of hours engineering it. The project’s DIY vibe seems consistent with Wilder’s Midwestern roots — he grew up in Kansas City and attended Grinnell College in Iowa before dropping out. And when he talks about the evils of a vertically integrated network like Google’s, he sounds like another famously bearded figure from our local history, the Free-Soiler John Brown. “It’s monetizing our thoughts,” he says, “which is another form of imprisonment. A prison of consumerism. Where everything you do is used to model your consumer profile such that they can show you advertisements tailored especially to you. . . . That will shape your habits, shape your assumptions, shape your politics, shape your ideologies in a way that’s more profound than just who has access.”

When the server tour is finished, Wilder, Greenfield, and I head up a flight of stairs. Oak Tower, which used to serve at Southwestern Bell’s Missouri headquarters, is itself a retro monument to monopolistic corporate power. The walls on the landing are sheathed in marble. But the break room where Wilder leads me next is more twenty-first century geek. There’s a white board, a Lego clock, and a Formica conference table with mismatched chairs.

In the corner by the window, a white microwave dish is mounted on a six-foot high stand. This is the FreedomLink. It resembles a room fan. “Don’t stand in front of that,” Wilder warns me when I lean in for a closer look. Then he points out the window, away from the steel and glass canyons of Kansas City’s downtown, to a bleak gray cluster of grain elevators on the far side of Interstate 35. It’s January. The trees are bare, leaving the roofs of the intervening buildings exposed. “Out past that grain elevator, if you can see it, that’s Rosedale Ridge,” he says. “Out there 3.7 miles.”

There, some 400 residents, half of them under the age of twelve, are now able to log on to the Internet, thanks to the signal from the dish beside me. It’s brilliant, improbable, and partly nuts — American, to me, in the best sense. I really want to see what Wilder sees, to find Rosedale Ridge, where this miracle is taking place, but I keep getting distracted by the expanse of the surrounding city. According to Google, nearly all of the homes and apartments I can see will be offered access to its fiber-optic network. The deal is signed, the service on the way.


[*] This is a corrected figure.

Share
Single Page
is the New Letters Writer-in-Residence at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and the author of The King of Kings County.

More from Whitney Terrell:

From the April 2013 issue

Only Connect

Kansas City gives it up for Google

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Jake W

    Go FNF! Isaac Wilder: Internet game John Brown! Also proud KC home to such an eloquent, stylin’ writer as Whitney Terrell!

  • Sean M

    Now they can access porn and cat videos like the rest of us.

  • Mike Hammett

    No doubt they’re violating their provider’s terms of service by relaying that $125 account to a 400 person complex. If you think $70/month for gigabit Internet service is too much, you belong in an insane asylum.

    • Seth Merritt

      Or, more likely, if you think 70$/month for gigabit Internet service is too much you may be poor.

      • Mike Hammett

        I’m not sure how to take that.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows
Post
Introducing the November 2014 Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Doug Henwood on stopping Hillary Clinton, fighters and potential recruits discuss the rise of the Islamic State, the inevitability of factory farming, and more

Cover photo by Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Industry estimate of the life span of the average umbrella (in years):

2.5

Cancer researchers in California confirmed that dogs can sniff out cancer patients with roughly the same accuracy as screening tests.

A deaf dog belonging to a deaf owner was shot and killed in Alabama, and an Indiana dog’s skin troubles were found to be caused by an allergy to humans. “It’s just not his fault,” said the owner of Lucky Dog Retreat.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today