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.

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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:

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