Neighborhood network

Free, wireless Web comes to Golden Hill


September 20, 2004

NELVIN CEPEDA / Union-Tribune
Michael Mee of the San Diego Wireless Users Group works on the rooftop antenna of the Golden Hill Free Web project, which provides wireless Net access at no cost to those in the area. Several volunteers are involved in the project.
Drew MacCullough lived a fairly unplugged life in a vintage Golden Hill apartment building known as the Pink Palace. No TV. No home phone. No Internet.

Then technology changed his life. Wireless Internet. And it was free.

"I had no high-definition anything," he said. "I didn't even have dial-up access. When I heard about free Internet, I thought, 'That sounds interesting.'"

About a year ago, the big, square pastel building at Broadway and 21st Street in San Diego became the heart of a local grass-roots project that merges high-tech skills and counterculture values to create what is known as a "freenet."

The Golden Hill Free Web ( uses Wi-Fi technology to provide free Internet access along several blocks of Broadway, just east of Interstate 5.

Similar networks are sprouting up around the country, from New York to Austin, Texas, to San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

NELVIN CEPEDA / Union-Tribune
Joe Cuffaro sips and surfs at the Influx Coffee House in Golden Hill. "There's not any time of day that we don't have people with laptops logged on," said the owner of the coffee house, Jason Twilla.
There are other free Wi-Fi hot spots and smaller freenets throughout the city of San Diego, including Little Italy, Ocean Beach, Carmel Valley and Clairemont Mesa.

While freenets are taking off around the country and the world, some cities are stepping in to provide wireless Internet access.

Philadelphia recently announced a $10 million program to cover the entire city with Wi-Fi access. The service is expected to be either free or less expensive than traditional high-speed Internet service, which can cost between $30 and $50 a month.

In San Diego, the city has considered public Wi-Fi but so far has limited its efforts to providing 34 free hot spots in libraries, according to Rey Arellano, deputy city manager and chief information officer.

Considering San Diego's budget crunch, money is not available for a significant Wi-Fi project in the city, Arellano said.

In Golden Hill, no one had to wait for public money. Pink Palace landlord Bart Ziegler and other property owners heard about freenets launching in other areas.

"We thought it was important to free up the Internet in our eclectic, artistic neighborhood," Ziegler said.

A year ago, Ziegler contacted the San Diego Wireless Users Group, whose membership shared an interest in freenets.

It turned out to be a good match.

Ziegler offered the rooftop of the Pink Palace for the freenet's first antenna. And he paid for the high-speed Internet access and the hardware to transmit a signal from the roof. Other owners paid for the hardware to link their buildings to the network.

And the techies got to test their skills.

"We get to geek around with a bunch of hardware that someone else is paying for, and the community gets free Internet," said Lee Barken, president of the wireless users' group. Barken is co-director of the Star Center, a technology research center at San Diego State University.

Writing a check for the equipment was far easier than the tasks faced by the wireless volunteers, Ziegler said.

"These guys are totally amazing," he said.

"They've got their regular jobs, then on nights and weekends they bust chops on this stuff. I get e-mail from Lee in the middle of the night saying, 'Why don't we try this?' Hours later this Internet wizard Michael Mee is down here getting the system cranking.

"Information should be free. These guys are liberating the airwaves of Golden Hill with high-speed Internet."

Line of sight

Wi-Fi technology is designed to broadcast a signal up to 300 feet between Wi-Fi transmitters and receivers.

To make the signal go farther, which the group had to do to build a neighborhood freenet, an unobstructed view, or line of sight, between buildings was required.

The three-story Pink Palace, built as a hotel in 1916, offered a good line of sight in several directions.

The freeweb reaches many of the homes between 20th and 28th streets south of B Street and north of E Street. It also includes a free hot spot near 20th and J streets.

Peak usage occurs during the evening, when the freenet often has as many as 30 people logged on, and sometimes up to twice that many.

All of those users share a single connection to a DSL, or digital subscriber line, that comes out of the wall in the basement of the Pink Palace.

A cable carries the signal to a rooftop Wi-Fi transmitter and antennas aimed at buildings up and down the hill.

Hardware in the other buildings deliver the rooftop signal to transmitters below which create Wi-Fi hot spots where users can access the Net.

"We're pretty much pushing the limits of the technology," Barken said while giving a rooftop tour.

"We got e-mail from a guy living in a downtown high-rise who was picking up our signal," he said, gesturing toward the skyline a few miles to the west.

The system is also pushing the limits of bandwidth from a single DSL connection, so the group is planning to add a second line, said Mee, a member of the wireless group who helped build the freenet.

"We could handle 200 people online at the same time if they were all reading e-mail," Mee said. "The problem is when everybody wants to download the latest movie promos from Yahoo! or the (Microsoft) XP Service Pack 2."

The network is designed to recognize bandwidth hogs, users who download more than their share of large files, and to prevent them from monopolizing the connection, Mee said.

A positive force

To MacCullough, the free Internet service has become a positive force in the neighborhood.

"There are people who move to this building because it has free Internet," he said. "Landlords love it because people with computers tend to be better tenants. Other landlords are joining the network. It's a nice, modern amenity to add to an older building."

The once-low-tech MacCullough has become a freenet zealot.

He is now the liaison between the wireless group and tenants in his building and beyond, helping people get connected and resolving other problems.

A few blocks away, a woman on one side of the street was able to pick up the Wi-Fi signal, while a neighbor on the other side could not.

MacCullough helped the two set up an access point in the woman's house that rebroadcast the signal toward the neighbor's house.

Located a couple of blocks down the hill from the Pink Palace, Influx Coffee House is one of the buildings where the freenet signal is picked up on the roof and rebroadcast to customers below.

While the Pink Palace is the heart of the network's hardware, Influx has become the public face of Wi-Fi in Golden Hill. The coffee shop hosts twice-monthly meetings where experts help residents hook up to the wireless network.

It also sells, at cost, the antennas and access points that many residents will need to pick up a signal on the fringes of the network.

On a recent afternoon, three customers worked on laptops and sipped iced drinks.

"We get a huge response from our customers," owner Jason Twilla said. "There's not any time of day that we don't have people with laptops logged on."

Twilla said his only apprehension was that the network might attract too many Web surfers and interfere with business, but that hasn't happened, he said.

Barken said that motivations vary for volunteers who helped build the network. Some come from the open-source-software movement, best-known for the operating system Linux, which advocates the free sharing and development of software. They believe that information, including Internet access, should be free.

Others like the technical challenge and learning experience of cobbling together a wireless network on a shoestring budget in the unfriendly, hilly terrain of San Diego.

"For me, I'd say it's both," Barken said.

"Of course, I'm going to get excited about the technology, but the social impact is unavoidable. It's great to see people actually benefiting from the technology. We're geeks. It's good for us to get out and meet people."

Jonathan Sidener: (619) 293-1239; jonathan.sidener@