New York Times, January 19, 2006 - Advocates of Wi-Fi in Cities Learn Art of Politics

A great article in the New York Times (same article on C|NET):

SEATTLE, Jan. 18 – The idea of building citywide wireless networks from the community level was suspiciously simple back in 2000, although the plans sounded like the work of underground revolutionaries. “All of us were very idealistic, and all quite strongly opinionated,” said Adam Shand, founder of Personal Telco, which had visions of such a network in Portland, Ore.

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Step 2 was never completed, which is why victory speeches seem, at first glance, out of place. Nonetheless, “community wireless accomplished spectacularly well what it set out to do,” said Dana Spiegel, president of NYCwireless, a volunteer wireless advocacy group in Manhattan.

While attendance at some community networking groups has plummeted and some smaller groups have disappeared, their technical and political impact has never been higher. Wireless advocates no longer dangle dangerously from rooftops mounting antennas built inside potato-chip cans, although some still provide technical help to business owners and nonprofit groups in creating free Wi-Fi hot spots.

“The problems that were hard in 2001 were technical ones,” Mr. Spiegel said. “Now, they’re personal and relationship and political ones. The technology, we almost don’t even think about it anymore.”

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Mr. Oh and The Boston Globe (a division of The New York Times Company) are experimenting in locations around Boston with what they call Pulse Points: freestanding Wi-Fi nodes with no Internet connections. These nodes carry only local discussion boards and information.

At a Pulse Point in the South Station train terminal, every other board posting in the early days “was a flame about why there was no free Internet access,” Mr. Oh said. Now, the spot is routinely used to exchange information and personal stories.

Mr. Spiegel said that the transition from hardware and networks to the higher level of programs and politics was inevitable as networks spread.

“In the end, what all of us were trying to do was to change the way people thought about communications,” he said. “The Internet wasn’t something that you sat down at the computer to use, but that it was something that permeated our lives – it just didn’t have the distribution to permeate our lives.”