Not your father’s ISP
Some ISPs simply discourage end users from offering WiFi connections to neighbors; most explicitly rule it out in their terms of service. But a small Canadian ISP called Wireless Nomad actually requires it.
Nomad does things a little differently. The company is subscriber-owned, volunteer-run, and open-source friendly. It offers a neutral Internet connection with no bandwidth caps or throttling, and it makes a point of creating wireless access points at the end of each DSL connection that can be used, for free, by the public. Bell Canada this is not.
Cofounders Steve Wilton (L) and Damien Fox (R)
"People like to share," says Nomad co-founder Damien Fox when we talk about the company's history. And if WiMAX radios run cheap enough, the members of Wireless Nomad could eventually blanket much of Toronto with high-speed ‘Net access. The operation has been tough to keep running, and Fox admits that "if we knew then what we knew now… we probably wouldn't have done it because it was too crazy."
But Fox andcofounder Steve Wilton have kept Wireless Nomad up for two years already, and they hope to see the subscriber-owned model take off in more communities in Canada and the US. Here's how they did it (and keep on doing it) at a lower price than Bell Canada's own DSL offerings.
What has mandatory line-sharing done for you lately?
We recently profiled Copowi, a startup ISP in the US that claims to guarantee network neutrality to subscribers. While Copowi has visions of offering service across the US, Wireless Nomad's ambitions have been more modest. The company has been operating since 2005 in Toronto, where Damien and some friends started the service in a Toronto condo.
It's fitting that a former EFF summer intern would help launch a service without bandwidth caps or traffic shaping, but it's all made possible by government regulation. Canada has mandatory access requirements for telephone lines that require a line owner to lease out access at wholesale rates for competitors who want to resell service. In the US, such requirements initially led to competition in the DSL space, but the line-sharing rules were eventually scrapped. In 2005, a California ISP called Brand X lost an important court case in which it argued that cable companies ought to share their lines, and later that year the FCC reclassified DSL in order to exempt it too from the line-sharing requirements altogether.
Once that happened, telecoms were free to resell services if they liked, but it was no longer required, and rates could be prohibitively expensive for any ISP that hoped to compete on cost (an issue that Copowi currently faces). In Canada, despite opposition from line owners, mandatory access provisions persist and make it simpler for resellers to enter the market. According to Fox, Toronto alone has more than 100 DSL resellers, making Wireless Nomad only one among many small ISPs.
And it is small, with only 100 or so subscribers, but it can still offer DSL at a competitive price. More importantly, it can offer DSL on its own terms.
Toronto downtown coverage map
Here's how it works: every new subscriber gets a DSL connection that Wireless Nomad purchases through a wholesaler (which in turn purchases service from Bell Canada and others). All subscribers are asked to stick a wireless router on the DSL line, but these routers have been tricked out with OpenWRT, and subscribers use Chillispot to control access. The idea is to make free Internet hotspots available to WiFi users all over the city, but not to do so in such a way that a subscriber's home Internet connection is degraded.
Anyone wanting to access the wireless link needs to set up a free account and can then surf the ‘Net at a throttled speed of 64Kbps (obviously, this does not apply to wireless accounts created by the subscriber, who has access to the full speed of the connection). Sure, this is pretty slow, but when total strangers offer you free connections over their own home connection, it's hard to complain too much.
In the last two years, more than 5,000 accounts have been created, a good indication that the free service really is being used.