My mom (who lives in a fairly rural area) has been trying to figure out how to get a broadband connection. She ran across this in the local paper. People in her area are using wireless networking to share broadband connections through the community.

[edit: can't seem to link to the paper's archives. Here's the full story, sorry for the length]


Published on February 18, 2002
2002- The Press Democrat



In Sebastopol, being neighborly has gone beyond sharing a cup of herbal tea. People today share high-speed Internet access.

Using a garden-variety wireless technology popularly called WiFi, tech-savvy, community-minded Sebastopol residents are creating a free wireless Internet network dubbed NoCat.
A small band of NoCat backers have set up four ``hot spots'' where their individual high-speed Internet connections can be tapped into by anyone with a laptop or PC equipped with a common $100 wireless network card.

So far, only a handful of people are actually tied into the network set up by Nocat, whose membership roster includes about 200 names. But despite its small beginnings, NoCat's vision is utopian: That its unofficial network will provide a free Internet connection to all of Sebastopol -- and perhaps even Sonoma County.

``The goal of NoCat is infinite bandwidth everywhere for free,'' said Rob Flickenger of Sebastopol, NoCat founder and Internet systems administrator at Sebastopol tech publisher O'Reilly & Associates.

Max Slimmer of Sebastopol, who has one of the network nodes that provide the Internet access, is less idealistic, but just as enthusiastic.

``It is a community effort and people are sharing bandwidth,'' Slimmer said. ``We are not going to resell service, and there is plenty to go around, so why not share it?''

Sebastopol NoCat is another example of a small but growing movement. Such off-the-grid, volunteer-run wireless networks have popped up in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle and New York.

A wireless network was in use in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and accessed by police and fire department emergency services, said Allen Nogee, a senior analyst with Cahners In-Stat of Scottsdale, Ariz., a high-tech consulting group.

WiFi is used typically by businesses to set up an internal wireless local area network for their computers, servers and printers without having to run the hard wires.

Sonoma State University uses WiFi so students with laptops can sit in the Schulz Information Center and access the campus network. has set up a password-protected wireless WiFi network so its customers can access the Internet while lounging in downtown Santa Rosa coffee shops, restaurants and at Courthouse Square, and airlines offer wireless connections in first-class airport lounges for business customers.

Simple case of sharing

This newest use of WiFi by NoCat and similar groups around the nation is simply bandwidth sharing: Someone gets a DSL connection and puts up an omni-directional antenna to share it with anyone within several hundred yards.

The cost is borne strictly by that individual, which could include as much as $300 for the equipment and $60 to $200 a month for the DSL connection. All those who want to access it will need to equip their PC or laptop with the $100 wireless network card.

DSL provides a high-speed Internet service of a minimum of 384 kilobits per second, about 20 times faster than a typical dial-up Internet connection, and can be accessed by 50 people at one time before showing any signs of slowing down.

And it is all possible because of WiFi, an inexpensive wireless technology officially called 802.11b, that permits the transmission of a signal over radio waves at a speed of 11 megabits per second, more than enough speed for the Internet.

That signal can travel for hundreds of yards between an antenna and a computer, or for miles if the antennas are larger and the signal boosted.

``It has never been possible before,'' Flickenger said. ``This is the first time in history you can offer the Internet to people around you and it doesn't cost any more than doing it for yourself.''

The Internet connection is pretty basic -- you can surf the Internet, but you will still need an Internet service provider or a free e-mail service to get e-mail.

And the Internet connection is not secure. Unlike a company's private wireless network, there are no passwords, firewalls or security measures that will keep others from eaves-dropping or even grabbing mail, credit card numbers and passwords.

``It is important to know the issues, and if it is OK to use it,'' said Sam Scalise, SSU senior director of information technology. ``I would use it, but not for banking transactions.''

Four transmission nodes

In Sebastopol, there are four Internet transmission nodes serving small areas on Gravenstein Highway near Fiesta Market and near Mill Station Road, downtown near where Highway 12 meets Highway 116, and near Palm Drive Hospital.

Nate Boblitt nine months ago put a directional antenna on the roof of his South Main Street business to beam DSL to his home a quarter-mile away. The result is DSL access in both places for an equipment cost of $600, plus $180 a month for DSL service.

He said he will soon erect an omni-directional antenna at his downtown office to open up DSL access to anyone within wireless range.

``I have way too many (Internet) bits I pay for that I don't use,'' Boblitt said.

Slimmer, a programmer for Veritas, a Mountain View-based software company, joined NoCat as a way to get high-speed Internet to his home office on Tilton Road, five miles from Sebastopol.

From his home, Slimmer and his son, Craig Slimmer, used a telescope to find a water tower on a Sebastopol tree farm that was within their line of sight and close enough to the PacBell central office to get DSL access.

Slimmer said they approached the tree farm owner and offered to pay for the cost of the transmitters and the DSL service, which he would share with the owner.

The process took almost a year and the antenna went up a week ago, transmitting one Internet signal to the Slimmer home and a second Internet signal in the surrounding neighborhood. The cost was about $1,000, plus $200 a month for DSL.

``The whole idea is that there is plenty of bandwidth and we are more than willing to share it,'' Slimmer said.

Flickenger said network users are required to register when they use it. Since the bandwidth is limited, too many simultaneous users could cause it to slow down. That can be regulated by a software program that would give those who are footing the bills preferential treatment, while regulating the speed of the other, free users.

``Most people when they get on the Internet will e-mail and look at Web sites. The nature of that traffic is sporadic. The problems are the Napster users, who are pulling constant streams of data,'' Flickenger said. ``You can share a line with 50 people and if they are just looking at Web pages, nobody notices.''

The Internet service providers who sell the DSL service initially don't prohibit such sharing, and are not concerned that it is costing them business because the practice so far is limited.

'Not intended use'

``The intended use is for the single home or business,'' said Fletcher Cook, a spokesman for Pacific Bell. ``While our policy does not prohibit this, it is not the intended use. It increases vulnerability and security, but we don't see this as widespread problem.''

Dane Jasper, president of, a Santa Rosa Internet service provider, even applauds the network organizers' ingenuity.

``On a large scale, there could be a financial impact to an ISP like ourselves,'' Jasper said. ``However, with these kind of small-scale individual deployments, I think it they are interested in spending the time and energy in putting it together, I don't begrudge them.'' PHOTO: 1 by MARK ARONOFF / The Press Democrat
Craig Slimmer lives near Sebastopol but outside Pacific Bell's DSL service area. He uses a directional antenna at his house to receive high-speed Internet service from a shared DSL connection in Sebastopol.
Keywords: INTERNET