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Something in the air 

Thirteen years ago, Chebucto Community Net was one of the first groups to connect Halifax to the mysterious new “internet.” Now, with a bold new plan to provide cheap city-wide wi-fi, they want to turn Halifax into a wireless wonderland.

Andrew Wright is a brave man. On a sultry June day, the manager of Chebucto Community Net is scaling ladders to the highest part of the roof of Fenwick Tower, Halifax’s tallest building, sussing out the best spot for an antenna. He’s rolled his blue shirt sleeves high up his thick arms. A white Chebucto ball-cap mops up his sweat.

Although the heavy-set Wright is breathing hard, his poise outstrips that of the Cabco engineers he’s contracted to hammer-drill the antenna, which looks like a grey plastic elbow, atop a sheer south-facing wall: one backs away from the building’s edge, his knees buckling. After all, Wright’s been maintaining Chebucto’s Fenwick-stationed webcam for years.

Wright might be a hero. This spring, he offered the 60 or so people attending the 13-year-old non-profit’s annual general meeting a second lease on life. Like other dial-up internet providers—and Chebucto was one of Halifax’s first—it has been steadily losing members over the past three years, currently down to 1,630 subscribers from a height of at least 4,000. Its surplus fell more than $6,000 at the end of last year—to $26,871.

What Wright said at that meeting is that the one thing that could save Chebucto—and preserve the only “real job” the 45-year-old has ever had—is wireless mesh networking.

So that modest piece of plumbing-like pipe in Wright’s hands actually represents a leap into the dial-up’s future—that is, if it works.

That June afternoon, Wright and his engineers will attach the antenna with coaxial cable to what’s called an “access point,” a white box the size and weight of a modem—except this one cost $900. It is supposed to broadcast Chebucto’s signal several blocks north and, ultimately, via “nodes” that will scoop around the south side of Fenwick Tower, provide hundreds of homes with dirt-cheap wi-fi.

The idea is exceedingly more communal than anything Chebucto has previously done: these portable nodes, which Wright and technical coordinator Johnathan Thibadault, plus some volunteers, are building using retrofitted hard-drive shells, would be located in the homes of dozens of Chebucto subscribers—initially, just in what Wright calls the six-block “footprint” near Fenwick.

From there, more nodes could carry the signal to thousands more in the north end, Dartmouth and even Spryfield. Wright says subscribers would access the web for $150 and node hosts for $200 per year, three-quarters of which is a refundable deposit for the node itself. That’s $100 less than the slowest high-speed connection currently available in Halifax.

Depending on the topography of the area and the penetrability of materials—like concrete, foliage, wood, brick—Wright says Chebucto could need three to five nodes per city block, or one every 300 feet, to create a reliable wireless signal.

If one node stopped relaying, the slack would be picked up by the nearest other nodes, called repeaters, which in turn signal other more distant nodes, or peers. If it works properly, the system would be relatively inexpensive, decentralized, reliable and resilient.

It’ll also be more secure than the “war driving” Wright’s been doing since mid-May, sniffing out unsecured wi-fi as part of his research into gaps in service. Private home-based routers are frequently open and free to the public, but wi-jackers depend on the host to keep the connection on—and on their own dull consciences. A wireless Chebucto could change all that.

Known as Chebucto FreeNet during its early years—even though technically, it has never been free—the internet provider’s plan has another facet: it will actually cost nothing for anyone connecting only to websites for Halifax-based entities, including URLs that originate outside of Nova Scotia. To make that happen, Chebucto is buying extra bandwidth. A tourist, for example, could search a government-supported website to find backwoods hiking trails—if he/she was within range of a node. Nodes that would benefit tourists could be placed on Citadel Hill and in churches, schools and seniors’ centres, similar to Community Access Point (CAP) sites, which bring internet access to communities across the country.

Free local wi-fi is a fitting ambition for an organization that also put the first public access internet stations into Halifax libraries. After all, Chebucto’s website describes the non-profit as striving “to enable all people in the Greater Halifax Region to participate in an electronic public space.”

Even their logo forecast this day, says Joan Macintosh, a longtime member and past president of Chebucto. One of the members excited by Wright’s presentation at the AGM, Macintosh says the society’s green and black grid symbol, the one embroidered on Wright’s cap, was designed in part to represent city blocks.

It’s also a fitting time: free wi-fi is an idea gaining momentum throughout North America. Wireless mesh networking could make parts of Halifax as connected as New York’s Central Park, which that city is committed to making completely wireless by the end of August. Or like Philadelphia and San Francisco, which are moving toward making internet access a free public utility. Even closer to home, parts of Cambridge, Massachusetts are enjoying a pilot project very similar to Chebucto’s, spearheaded by MIT.

Wireless mesh networking would also breathe life into premier Rodney MacDonald’s vague election promise to make Halifax “the wireless capital of Canada.” As Wright puts it, the government “should be all over this.” Especially since companies like Aliant, in the wake of free internet-based phone calling programs like Skype, are getting out of residential applications and investing in technologies like informatics (information processing for industries like health care and pharmaceuticals).

And Halifax is a fitting place. StatsCan’s latest numbers show that our city has the second highest rate of internet use in the country, 67 percent. (We’re bested only by Ottawa-Gatineau’s 70 percent, not by Toronto or Vancouver.) And of the 7.9 million Canadians who regularly went online in 2003, almost two-thirds had a high-speed link to the internet—up nine percent from the previous year. Today’s number is undoubtedly higher.

Wright can’t say how fast Chebucto wireless will be, only that it won’t be appreciated by “gamers” for whom a “half-second delay is intolerable,” he says. “But web browsers will be happy.”

“We need to get a lot of interest at ground,” says Wright, in the closet-sized office he shares with Thibadault at Dalhousie University, a claustrophobic space jammed with computers and gack. The jargon-talking computer geeks are not marketing experts, and they know it: “This is more than a community net. It’s about a different way to do things, rather than being about the almighty dollar,” says Wright.

It will also probably be about Chebucto having the business acumen to market itself in a new way, to not only counter but defeat the popular notion that Chebucto either folded years ago or that it’s unreliable.

“We fight that,” says Bernard Hart, chair of Chebucto’s board of directors. “It really is tough today. But when it began, we were one of a handful of providers, and all the real keeners were all using Chebucto.” Hart points out that the Halifax Regional Library, Metro Transit and the Chronicle-Herald were among their early clients.

“Our key concern is to make work for people in the city—just as we did with our dial-up service,” says Hart, who is also the former manager of Nova Scotia’s CAP sites. “So that if people can’t afford it, we would get it to them.”

Except for project funding, Chebucto has never had grant money, says Hart. It’s relied on word of mouth and loyalty for at least some of its current membership, and on the goodwill of people like Joan Macintosh, one of many Chebucto subscribers who has both an Eastlink and a Chebucto account.

Another question is whether Chebucto has the muscle to make wireless fly in the city. According to reports presented at the AGM, one committee didn’t meet at all last year.

“It’s sort of an irony,” continues Hart, referring to rumours of Chebucto’s demise. “Because our site is also one of the most heavily used…. Because of our webcam, the thing just skyrockets during events like Tall Ships. One of the things we try to impress on councillors is that we advertise Halifax.”

Hart acknowledges that the board hasn’t established a wi-fi marketing plan yet: “How do we identify the node people, and that’s really the secret—once we have the people with a node, that gives us the base…. One of the exciting things about the whole operation is that you learn the potential of what can come from it.”

Wright says he expects the key to selling this will be a lot of vigorous knocking on doors.

Morris Street resident Michael Frank, one of the people who lives in Chebucto’s wireless footprint near Fenwick Tower, says he likes the idea—in part because of the price: “It sounds like a really cool idea. If you make easy and cheaper, if it creates options, so I can sit on Citadel Hill and show people where I live , then suddenly it’s not only Chebucto offering something, but hundreds of people.”

It’s a portability akin to that dreamed up by cellular pioneers. But as Wright wrote in a mid-July email: “A special feature of the Chebucto approach is that the control of the connectivity as well as its end uses, will be in the hands of the people themselves.”

Currently, Chebucto is handing out node application forms to anyone who asks. So far, they have 12 takers, including just one in the six-block footprint. But if they can snag people like Frank, who want to support community-based technology, it could just work.

It’s now a sultry August day and from 29 floors up, the toppled gravestones in Fort Massey Cemetery resemble tiny fallen heroes.

So far, Wright’s recipe for renewal hasn’t worked. June, unfortunately, produced dismal results for Chebucto wi-fi. July’s progress was stalled by the summer vacations at Cabco. Wright’s now pinning his hopes on August.

It turns out that unless the weather-protected access point is tethered with a very short cable—not the dozens of cable-feet required to bridge the distance between it and the antenna—the signal doesn’t reach much past the foot of Fenwick Tower at South Street. So Wright, still optimistic, returned to the computer lab to make a “homebrew” access point, which he plans install this week.

At the same time, Thibadault is implementing one gigabyte email boxes, the largest in Halifax—it’s a separate initiative, also part of Chebucto’s strategy to stay afloat.

A bit of luck would see government investing in Chebucto’s technology: another member of the Chebucto board met with the HRM director of shared services, but as yet there’s been no follow-up.

If his new access point works, Wright says they will be “banging the drum pretty hard to get people interested.”

And what if he saves the internet provider from the fate some people are clamouring to see it avoid?

“If we can pull it off, it’ll be world class and we’ll have something to trumpet then.”

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