Unchained Melodies

Austin's wireless future takes the stage at SXSW

<i>Smart Mobs </i>author Howard Rheingold and the Austin Wireless Network's  Richard MacKinnon (above) will be among the many SXSW Interactive  participants discussing the impact of wireless technology.
Smart Mobs author Howard Rheingold and the Austin Wireless Network's Richard MacKinnon (above) will be among the many SXSW Interactive participants discussing the impact of wireless technology. (Photo By John Anderson)

South by Southwest bands will be getting more exposure this year thanks to Austin's first major test of a free wireless Internet delivery system that will let people stream music to computers throughout the city.

The Austin Wireless City Project lets conference attendees who come equipped with WiFi-enabled laptops to fire up their computers at any of the 25 participating venues and stream more than 500 songs from SXSW bands through Apple's iTunes digital music service.

While there is obvious entertainment value, the project also allows the city to showcase its technical prowess, a theme being explored during the IC2 Wireless Future presentations at the SXSW Interactive Conference 2004.

"This creates an increasing number of ways to get access with WiFi, and builds the perception that access should be everywhere," says Jon Lebkowsky, president of Austin's Polycot Consulting and part of the SXSW Interactive steering committee. "This is about ubiquitous computing, getting devices everywhere working with each other."

Austin Wireless City Project

Richard MacKinnon is a slight man and prone to rapid-fire speech. He's also the president of the Austin Wireless Group, an ad hoc network of enthusiasts who meet once a month with mobile phones, wireless devices, and software applications, looking to share secrets, spare parts, and hacked equipment with each other.

They haven't garnered much attention, but the group quietly formed the Austin Wireless City Project, an organization that provides free WiFi network installation and maintenance for local businesses.

Wireless Fidelity is simply a standard language that laptops, Palm Pilots, and even cell phones use to communicate with other devices over short distances by using radio signals. WiFi isn't a direct route to the Internet, though. To connect, people still must find a service provider.

Once a business has shelled out $26.95 a month for SBC's business-class DSL service, and another $120 for a wireless router, the Wireless City Project team installs the router and then provides free networking service if anything ever goes wrong. So while Starbucks foists per-minute connection fees on its customers and depends on T-Mobile for network maintenance, local establishments can provide free access since there is no cost to set up and maintain the network.

Today, Austin has 225 companies with wireless hot spots, and 160 of those are independently owned. Of those, Austin's Wireless City Project provides 25 free installations and services.

"We have a community of people behind this, and that makes our network just as reliable as any corporation," MacKinnon says. "You don't need to pay for access over WiFi to make money."

SXSW Mini Conference

While the Music Festival partygoers will reap the benefits of free wireless access, the IC2 Institute's Wireless Futures presentations during the SXSW Interactive Conference will be focusing on how everyday people can harness the power of always-on connections to change the world in which they live. After all, innovation never stops, particularly when new technology is turned over to the masses.

"Smart mobs enable us to organize in a collective action," says Howard Rheingold, who will deliver his keynote address on Monday, March 15. "I want to zoom back and give people a bigger picture about technology. Not just about the industry, but the context of how technology changes society."

Rheingold has spent the last few years evangelizing wireless technologies after writing Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, which follows the trails of people who connect with each other using technology.

Connecting, in a nutshell, is the theme behind not only the Wireless Futures minitrack, but also the entire Interactive Conference.

Austin's Wireless Future

The future, though, isn't going to happen without a little elbow grease, and when the SXSW fervor dies down, the Austin technology community still has a long row to hoe if it wants to become a wireless technology hub.

The University of Texas' IC2 Institute's Wireless Future report found Austin still lags behind cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle when it comes to wireless technological development.

Still, the city is poised to take a leading role in emerging technologies. There are 91 local companies that deal in wireless technologies, and half of those are focused exclusively on wireless endeavors. While that generated only $85 million in consumption in 2003, most businesses are projecting earnings for 2004, which has revitalized businesses. Those companies expect to employ 4,215 people this year, a 25.7% increase from a year ago.

Helping drive that growth is the Austin Wireless Alliance, an organization that connects commercial businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, and the University of Texas' wireless research group. The group holds bimonthly meetings with its 35 member companies, attracting upward of 100 people for each meeting.

"A lot of what we are doing is getting to know each other," says Randall Baker, president of Tuanis Technology and founding member of the Wireless Alliance. "But what we want is to become a wireless center of excellence." end story

The SXSW Interactive Festival takes place Friday-Tuesday, March 12-16, and includes numerous wireless panels and presentations; check schedule for details. Howard Rheingold will give a keynote address Monday, March 15, at 2pm. Richard MacKinnon, Jon Lebkowsky, and Randall Baker will be part of the Wireless Everywhere! panel Sunday, March 14, 11:30am. See www.sxsw.com/interactive for more information.

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