Extending Community Home Online - the ECHO for universal access is about to return home

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Tue, 11/28/2006 - 03:38.

On next Wednesday, December 6, 2006,  it will have been two years since I proposed to Northeast Ohio that we can easily and inexpensively bridge the digital divide for East Cleveland, and other communities in need in the region, by deploying mesh wifi networks here and distributing recycled computers running open source software (see original posting below, and linked with other related files here). I called this vision ECHO - originally "East Cleveland Homes Online", renamed "Extending Community Home Online". While I've driven some ECHO progress, over these years, especially deploying to people in need recycled computers running Ubuntu, the mesh is still to come. The time has come.

While leaders in NEO haven't grasped the potential of such a grass-roots infrastructure deployment, global visionaries, led by Argentine entrepreneur and philanthropist Martin Varsavsky, supported by visionary global technology luminaries like Google, Skype, Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital, have launched world-wide, from Madrid, Spain, FON - "the largest WiFi community in the world. Our members share their wireless Internet access at home and, in return, enjoy free WiFi wherever they find another Fonero’s Access Point." Not only is FON a capitalist, money making service provider, but they are developing technology.

Wouldn't that have been nice to make happen here. Well, we didn't, and FON of Madrid did, and I'm exploring how we may partner with them to deploy a variation of their service here - I think this will be a very straight forward process now. Basically, what they provide is exactly what I envisioned in 2004, described below. They have developed a WiFi "Social Router" called a La Fonera, which you plug into a DSL or cable modem and offers you two wifi network signals (SSIDs), private and public. The private signal is encrypted and offers you complete privacy... the public signal will be accessible to Foneros only. This signal is the one that turns your broadband connection into a FON Access Point.

A Foneros is a registered user of the FON service. To make things more interesting, there are three types of Foneros... Linuses (named after the global open source originator of Linux) that share WiFi at home and in return get free WiFi wherever they find a FON Access Point.... Bills (named after American Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates) who want to make some money from their WiFi, who get a 50% share of the money that Aliens pay to access the Community through their FON Access Point, and can also advertise their business on their personalized FON Access Point homepage... and Aliens, who don’t share their WiFi but pay €/$ 3 for a Day Pass to access the FON Community.

 I've been studying many strategies for deploying community broadband and with this significant FON deployment return to my original assumption, which is that most broadband DSL and cable connections to the Internet are far underutilized (like 5% of capacity), and those still to be deployed will be underutilized, and each can be shared by spreading the signal out over a WiFi cloud to computers within wireless signal range of the "wired" points of presence (POPs). While there is a need to have many wired high speed POPs on the Internet, one POP may be accessed by many distributed wireless nodes without degrading service at the POP or to any nodes, in a well devised mesh with intelligent routing of traffic.

So FON seeks to enroll enough POPs to deploy their La Fonera "social router" to overlap and cover much of the world with their cloud of interconnected WiFi, to which all Foneros can access. You pay a bit for the router ($29.95), or not, and may pay something to access the network, or not, and Linuses share, and FON makes some money, and "Bills" make some money, and "Aliens" pay something, and the digital divide is much more bridged through wireless world-wide. Time to make East Cleveland a model for how this may occur in NEO.

 What I am exploring now is how this scenario works in our local markets, focusing on East Cleveland, Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and NEO region-wide. Considering, with good social promotion and local support, it would now be be easy to drive deployment of FON access throughout much of Northeast Ohio, and save residents lots of money, and make the region a global leader in information technology, it is unimaginable that many people will stand in the way. We'll see who do, and deal with them as they come.

More to come!


ECHO is a Northeast Ohio region-wide initiative to support the leaders, residents and enterprises of East Cleveland who are proactively working to bridge the community's digital divide - ECHO stands for East Cleveland Homes Online. Representatives of the University Collaboration are driving this initiative, with prominent leadership from Case and Cleveland State. These efforts are supported by the Mayor of East Cleveland, and will help him reinvent the great community he serves.

ECHO will bridge East Cleveland's digital divide by compiling donated computers and distributing them and open source software and wifi Internet access and communications devices to insure each household, business and organization in East Cleveland has a computer with Internet access and optimal software and information services. The Intention is for computers and Internet access, training, education and support services to be made affordable for everyone living and working in East Cleveland, so life there is bettered by enhanced Internet and information technology, including Voice over Internet Protocol, social networking, eLearning, eMedicine, eCommerce and eGovernment. As East Clevelanders become experienced using these new economy tools and services, they will become more powerful forces in the local and regional economy, making NEO a stronger and better community for all.

Posted below are timely articles on technical, social and political developments related to deployment of such "socialized" information services via ECHO. The computer donation, processing and distribution initiative will be described in a different document - this write-up addresses providing Internet access. ECHO will deploy WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) as the core technology for Internet access with a "mesh", which you can visualize like a safety net. Also posted here are articles on alternative access technologies: Powerline Carrier, enabling communications via the power transmission infrastructure already interconnecting everything in East Cleveland, and WiMAX, which uses microwave to bring high bandwidth communications to target locations. Technology needed for ECHO is available in the marketplace and is reliable, cost effective, and getting better daily.

Adding a WiFi router to a cable or DSL Internet access modem (or Powerline or WiMAX access device) allows the wireless transmission of the Internet signal to and from WiFi ready computers within range of the signal, allowing many computers to access a single Internet connection. Range is determined by the WiFi technologies employed ("b", "g" or emerging "n"), and may be enhanced by optimal placement of antennas, amplifiers, and repeaters and diminished by physical obstructions, distance, and other interference. While the least expensive WiFi routers and other devices are "b", the extended range of "g" and "n" may justify using those broader range technologies for the benefit of providing service to more households per access point. It is also possible to add repeaters and amplifiers that extend range further. The deployment schema of these technologies determines the scope of the signal of each access point on the mesh. The objective is to distribute a combination of these technologies so all Internet access areas overlap, forming a mesh providing complete coverage throughout the city.

The greatest technical challenge is determining how loose a mesh is possible - how great a distance may be configured between hard-wire access points. Physical DSL, cable or other Internet access points must be contracted for homes, businesses, churches, schools and other structures distributed throughout the community - the WiFi mesh will radiate from those points. For initial modeling purposes, we'll estimate 1,000 physical Internet access connections must be contracted, for interconnecting all the WiFi technologies needed to provide coverage for 11,000 households in East Cleveland.

Computers in structures with direct access points may connect to the Internet via Ethernet. Unwired computers access the mesh and so wireless Internet by using WiFi cards/devices. By leveraging Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), people may also use WiFi capable telephones and computers for telephone communications throughout the internetworked community and via the Internet world-wide. Costs for computer WiFi cards have become quite low - a "b" card costs under $20 retail - bulk wholesale purchases could drive that cost to around $10. "g" and "n" cards cost somewhat more. The "g" and "n" cards and routers are backwards compatible to connect with "b" devices so a combination of all these WiFi standards will be used, as is most cost effective.

To complete a cost analysis, we must determine the availability of DSL and Cable Internet access in East Cleveland. Areas where households are physically isolated or where there is not any broadband service available will be the most costly and difficult to include in the mesh - perhaps requiring WiMAX and higher strength WiFi deployments. A map must be developed of all addresses in East Cleveland needing Internet access, on which we'll overlay available Internet service options and the optimal mesh of technology solutions. This is not an especially difficult challenge - the data should all be available.

It must still be determine what level of broadband is available in East Cleveland via existing DSL service providers and via cable Internet access. Where available, monthly charges quoted by SBC for DSL in Northeast Ohio range from a minimum of $19.95, if bundled with other SBC telecommunications services (like long distance phone), to an unbundled $29.95, if signing a one year contract. To receive SBC DSL, customers must also subscribe to their POTS - Plain Old Telephone Service - which costs a minimum of $12.67, for those eligible for SBC's low-income "lifeline" program, meaning monthly DSL related access costs/customer total a minimum of $42.62. If available in East Cleveland, cable internet access typically costs around $49/month, after any trial period discounts offered by carriers. With a one year contract, DSL and cable service providers typically provide a DSL or Cable modem at no additional cost - carriers may charge for installation and equipment shipping. These figures are estimates and all this information will be validated by contacting all carriers servicing East Cleveland. Further, pricing may be reduced through strategic planning and negotiation for service in bulk contracts.

For initial modeling purposes, project up-front cost of $50/modem and recurring cost of $20/access point/month X 1,000 access points = $50,000 up front and $20,000 per month for all of East Cleveland. In addition, there will be an up-front cost for the hardware to configure the WiFi transmission mesh for the 10,000 wireless access households projected in this model for East Cleveland - estimate 1,000 routers, at $50/router, and 1,000 amplifiers/repeaters, at $50 each - totaling $100,000 in additional up front hardware costs. The 1,000 households with cable or DSL modems will be able to access the Internet using ethernet, and ethernet cards are preinstalled in enough computers to assume that will not add any costs. The computers accessing the Internet mesh via WiFi will need WiFi cards, which will be estimated at $20/card, adding $200,000 to the up front hardware costs for 10,000 households. Thus, the up-front hardware cost to interconnect 11,000 households will be around $350,000 - about $32/household. Monthly access service costs will then be around $20,000 for the community of 11,000 households, being under $2/month/household. Even if costs are twice those estimated here, they are quite affordable - most households can afford $2-4/month for high speed Internet access, especially as that also enables VoIP (to optimize this capability, some computers may need headsets, which are available for under $10/headset). Households in East Cleveland already contracting for broadband Internet service will be able to participate in this mesh pricing model, allowing those residents to save or be compensated $30-40/month.

While $350,000 may seem like a lot of up-front money to spend in this community, it provides Internet access to 11,000 households and thus comes to around $32/household, which should be a manageable one-time expense for most households. If some East Cleveland households can't afford that cost up front, there should be a way to finance that over a year, as each household can afford $3-4/month for hardware, on top of $2-3/month for access. It is reasonable to project the entire mesh, with financed access hardware and recurring monthly service, is thus viable for less than $10/household/month. Consider, this distributed mesh cost is about 50% the minimum cost for any of these households to contract just local POTS - Plain Old Telephone Service - and 10 - 20% of what it would cost them for either cable or DSL Internet service, if they qualify. As a strategic planning option, each household could be expected to pay $10/month, which would generate $110,000 per month community wide, totaling $1,320,000/year, which would generate around $500,000 for other development and support costs and cover any losses from non-payments, customer hardships, stolen equipment and such.

To make the process as cost-efficient as possible, a not-for-profit organization should be used to deploy the mesh and enabling hardware and support services, as that may accept donated hardware and services - every device donated and service volunteered represents dollars saved from the costs to the people of the community. This 501c3 should be able to contract advantageous Internet access pricing for the entire community as an umbrella service contract, and should be able to acquire all hardware and contract services in bulk buying agreements for everyone, while negotiating every other advantage possible for a charitable organization. Options to pursue are grants, gifts and charitable donations, and collaborative relationships with schools, government, and other charitable organizations.

It is important to realize the mesh will serve East Cleveland businesses, government, and other organizations as well, making all of them more effective. As an example of the value of that, the Director of East Cleveland's largest employer, Huron Hospital, apparently wanted to initiate a buy-in-East Cleveland program but found few East Cleveland businesses are available on-line, so it is functionally impossible for a sophisticated enterprise to buy local. But as local businesses and residents move into the New Economy, it is a minor task to develop directories of their services, and enable eCommerce capabilities. Thus, local businesses and organizations like Huron Hospital can better serve their community, as is their desire. And all other East Cleveland residents will become more employable and be better served by their local business community, and East Cleveland will be a better place to base a business.

Huron Hospital and other service providers will be able to provide better service to an interconnected community. East Cleveland government and schools will be able to better serve their community. Organizations, businesses, and individuals within and outside East Cleveland will be better able to serve East Cleveland residents, and residents will be better prepared to serve their community and the entire region in every way imaginable. All the great benefits will become clearer each day East Cleveland is undivided.

The only obstacles to making this happen would be obstruction by businesses that hope to sell competing information technology and services in East Cleveland. But, as the preponderance of good to come from ECHO far eclipses the self-interests of any businesses hoping to profit off the struggling residents and small businesses of this community, it is safe to assume no socially responsible businesses will obstruct this transformative initiative.