San Diego may be one of the most wired cities in the nation, but access to the Internet-like just about everything in life-is directly proportional to affluence. In an attempt to level the playing field, local nonprofit SoCal Free Net (socalfreenet.org) is building free wireless Internet networks throughout San Diego, primarily in lower-income neighborhoods.
Here's how it works: Say a landlord wants to provide free Internet to tenants, or the owner of a coffeehouse wants to let customers click while they caffeinate. The building owner can host a "node"-a location where the signal is sent out-by purchasing the equipment and Internet access that allows sharing; SoCal Free Net's corps of volunteers will complete the installation at no charge. A rooftop transmitter and antennas send out the signal to surrounding buildings, while hardware in other buildings delivers the rooftop signal to transmitters below, creating wi-fi hotspots where users can access the Internet.
Links between nodes are formed from rooftop to rooftop, stretching the signal to as much of the community as possible. There are currently 13 such nodes, concentrated in Golden Hill, with additional locations in Sherman Heights, Normal Heights, National City, B arrio Logan, North Park and South Park.
As part of the deal, the building owner must adhere to the group's mission of "access for all" and also provide the wireless service to the community at large.
"We don't typically go out of our way to help property owners if they're not actively buying into the concept of helping the neighborhood," said Drew MacCullough, in charge of community relations for SoCal Free Net.
Anyone in the neighborhood within range-usually a few blocks and up to half a mile-can buy a receiver and tap into the signal.
The Golden Care Workforce Institute, a nonprofit that provides affordable-healthcare career training to San Diego residents, recently got connected to an existing SoCal Free Net location. Golden Care maintains several workstations for staff, plus a computer lab for students. It needed wireless access that was fast, reliable and cheap. The organization had been paying upwards of $1,200 annually for wireless service with Cox Communications-an "exorbitant" cost for a nonprofit to bear, said Jennifer Williamson, executive director of Golden Care.
Williamson learned about SoCal Free Net from the Greater Golden Hill Community Development Corp. and decided to run a test of the wireless system for a month. It "worked flawlessly," she said.
Golden Care paid less than $500 for the wiring and a receiver on the roof to pull a signal from a nearby node. SoCal Free Net volunteers completed the installation within a few hours, and now the organization pays no monthly fees for its service.
SoCal Free Net was inspired by similar projects in other cities, such as SeattleWireless, NYCWireless and ThirdBreak in Santa Cruz. Volunteers are often romanticized in the media as techno-rebels, hacker outlaws or rooftop-hopping, cable-slinging techie activists.
That may be partly true some of the time. But SoCal Free Net's installations are completely legal, and MacCullough tends to have a more mundane perspective about the organization and its volunteers. "We're a lot of people just really interested in computers, who want to learn more," he said. "We do have a focus on the underserved community and affordable-housing situations, but that's not our only focus. We'll go into any neighborhood where it's appropriate for us."
"We're activists in the sense that we're actually on the streets doing something," MacCullough added. "But I don't feel like we're leading a crusade or a great cause. We're just trying to help people. If that's activism, fine."
Yet it's no secret that use of high-tech tools like computers and the Internet boosts competitiveness in school and the workplace. And some evidence points to a widening technology gap between the information haves and have-nots in San Diego.
While computer ownership stands at a high 81 percent countywide (with 91 percent of those computer owners also connected to the Internet), blacks, Latinos and low-income households lag behind in computer ownership and Internet access, according to a study conducted by the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance (RTA) in 2004. Latinos make up 28 percent of the population, but represent 40 percent of the "unconnected."
Places like National City stand at the widest section of the so-called "digital divide." The city has the dubious distinction of being both the poorest city in the county, as well as its least connected, according to the RTA.
"Every place else is just miles ahead, in terms of percentage of households with Internet connection," said Wayne Suiter, a SoCal Free Net volunteer and National City resident. "There's a huge disadvantage for students who aren't online. You talk about a level playing field-not being connected is an uneven playing field.... For adults, not being able to go online is just as much of a disadvantage."
Last year, SoCal Free Net helped Suiter set up a computer lab at the El Toyon Recreation Center in National City. The 10 computers provide Internet access to students and the public on a daily basis, and also broadcast the signal to the surrounding neighborhood. The rec center is one of just a few places in the city where public computers and Internet access are available.
"Anything that can give opportunities is important, whether it's a library or Internet access. Anything that can give a leg up is vitally important in these areas," Suiter said.
According to a recent community survey, about 47 percent of National City respondents said they never access the Internet. It is also one of the most culturally diverse areas of the county, with a large Latino population. "We're adding opportunities for people to get online," said Chris Zapata, National City's city manager. "In doing so, we're understanding the cultural makeup of the community." That can mean breaking through language barriers and culture-based anxieties about technology and the Internet.
National City now has plans to create a free wi-fi zone downtown with the help of SoCal Free Net, Zapata said. The city would pay for the equipment, and SoCal Free Net would provide the labor and expertise.
"The City Council has identified technology as one of its top five priorities. We've already made investments in a state-of-the-art library and education center. This corridor just makes sense," Zapata said. "The next step is to work with the SoCal Free Net computer whizzes. We really just got out of their way-it was a matter of giving them the green light to come in."
Meanwhile, in San Diego, the city's Science and Technology Commission created the Public WiFi Working Group subcommittee to discuss the possibility of providing public access to wireless technology in the city. The subcommittee's third monthly meeting with members of the public and SoCal Free Net will be held Aug. 7.
Though MacCullough says free municipal wi-fi would be a "good expenditure of money," he concedes that the city's ongoing fiscal problems have made public wi-fi a low priority.
The possibility of government-sponsored, free public wi-fi in the city of San Diego is probably a long way off. The city itself has no official or unofficial position on offering public wi-fi access and is merely "in the preliminary stages of reviewing the best management practices of other cities," said Tina Hines, business development specialist for the city of San Diego. The subcommittee is appraising the practices of other municipalities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tempe, Ariz., that are offering free public access to wi-fi services.
"My expectation is that it's going to take some time to bring the different interests and neighborhoods on board, address their concerns and create consensus. This is a pretty cautious city, which is good," said MacCullough. "Ultimately, as with any major initiative, a lot will depend on the citizens. If the public says, "Yes, I believe in this; I want this in my neighborhood, my city,' it'll be something great. I think it'll happen, and I'm really excited about it."
Still, offering free wi-fi to people who don't have computers is a bit like issuing library cards without building the actual libraries. Work in that area continues, with projects like the much-touted $100 student laptop-a no-frills computer equipped with Internet capability. The laptops, which creators are hoping will revolutionize education in third-world countries as well as here at home, could be widely available starting in 2007.
National City's Zapata conceded there's much work to be done to get computers into the hands of the least connected.
"There are things we need to do in the future, for prospective residents," he said. "There's a two-fold approach. We need to plug the hole with existing investment, as well as set the stage for an enhanced level of infrastructure."
While some cities are taking a proactive approach to building that infrastructure, other may just have to rely on groups like SoCal Free Net.