The Hot Spot
How Richard MacKinnon and the Wireless City Project are making Austin the center of the tech universe again
Richard MacKinnon is changing the city of Austin on a fundamental level. For a city driven by technology and forever flush with creatives, Austin has always been at the forefront of the tech wars, and now, thanks to MacKinnon's efforts with his Austin Wireless City Project, the city is leapfrogging ahead of the entire world. Austin now has more free Wi-Fi hot spots local outlets, often coffeehouses, that allow computer users with laptops to access the Internet free of charge than anywhere else on the planet. Walk into almost any coffeehouse in town and you'll find huddled masses yearning to surf free.
MacKinnon's nonprofit group (he also founded wireless business Less Networks) launched in October of 2003, and he runs it with an all-volunteer board and staff that includes such heavyweight Austin digerati as Austin Electronic Frontier Foundation President and Polycot Consulting CEO Jon Lebkowsky, as well as members of other Austin-based wireless groups, including Ana Sisnett of Austin Free-Net. AWCP has for the past year been quietly fomenting nothing short of a revolution to empower local business and common areas such as Republic Square Park with free wireless access, meaning you can check your e-mail, surf the Web, or simply hang out online no matter where you are in the city, provided there's a "hot spot" within, say, 300 feet or so. And best of all? It's free.
You don't have to speak tech to know much about how MacKinnon's ambitious drive to hook up all of Austin works, but it helps. For the layman, the term Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity, which in turn refers to any type of 802.11 network that runs on a computer, using special software, which is then broadcast on a radio frequency (typically 2.4 gigahertz 802.11b), so that laptop users who have a wireless card in their machine can log on and surf no matter where they may be. The arcane nuts and bolts of Wi-Fi are standardized, sort of, by a group called the Wi-Fi Alliance, which relocated to Austin from Mountain Valley, Calif., in early 2004.
The Wi-Fi Way of Life
The Alliance's mission and they're just one of many groups in Austin with a finger or two on the pulse of the emerging Wi-Fi phenomenon (others include the aforementioned Austin Free-Net, www.austinfree.net, which has been around since 1995 and, according to its Web site, "helps community organizations launch free Internet access sites for the public, as well as offering lessons on how to build and support Wi-Fi networks") is considerably more business-oriented than MacKinnon's guerrilla outfit, but all the disparate groups have one thing in common: the idea that Internet access should be everywhere, and not just stuck at home, tied to the anchor of your bulky G4.
"To have our Wi-Fi in your business," explains MacKinnon, "you need the basic gear, which is called an access point. Everybody needs that. It's kind of like the base-station for a cordless phone. Then you need some kind of modem, like a broadband modem, cable, or DSL, to connect to the Internet. The other thing we add is the hot-spot server, and that's our software from Less Networks that runs on a dedicated PC at the business site. And we set all this up for free in the interest of serving the community. It's really pretty simple."
MacKinnon's outfit is small a dozen or so volunteers that set up new hot spots for interested venues using computers donated by Austin's Image Microsystems and software designed by MacKinnon's other company, Less Networks (www.lessnetworks.com), which designed the software that the Austin Wireless City Project uses.
Probably the best definition of MacKinnon's mindset on Wi-Fi and why paying for it is a Very Bad Thing as Starbucks will ask you to do when you try to log in to their Wi-Fi network can be found on Less Network's homepage:
"Many companies are sales-driven, marketing-driven, or engineering-driven. Less Networks is philosophy-driven. We believe that we are emerging from several years of excess that we like to call the Times of More. Those were fat times and it seemed like everyone was making more money and buying more stuff. Now that the dust has settled, it's not clear we've ended up in a better place. Lots of companies are gone and lots of friends are unemployed. It seemed like fun at the time, but perhaps at too great an expense.
"We believe the world is ready for a new way of doing business and living life. It's not about more money and more stuff. It's about knowing the difference between a life well-lived and a life that's purchased. It's about how much you can do with what you have. The founders and employees of LESS Networks have created a company based on the Philosophy of Less."
It's a mission statement that's pure Austin, and MacKinnon's battle cry "Keep Wi-Fi Free" (he can be seen sporting the group's garish orange T-shirts bearing just that slogan 24/7) is less concerned, at this point at least, with the business application of free Internet surfing for the masses than it is with simply getting as many people hooked up as it possibly can. It's an admirable socialist bent that informs practically every aspect of MacKinnon's world-view and a refreshing change of pace from the hellish techoid brinksmanship of the city's notorious Internet bubble years. That was then, this is now, and now, apparently, wants to be free, dammit.
"I first encountered Wi-Fi back around 2000," says MacKinnon over the noonday bustle at Hyde Park hipster landmark Quack's 43rd Street Bakery, "and at the time no one really had it, and there was no one to talk to about it. I had it at home on my computer at the time, and I remember thinking, 'This is going to change the world.' ... And so that was kind of the big moment. I knew that people were going to want wireless, to be able to roam about their house with their laptops instead of just sitting in one place day after day. And I knew it was going to be huge, eventually."
Already active in a number of Austin wireless groups (see sidebar), MacKinnon then set out to create his own reality, one in which Internet access would be free for all and open to anyone. The Internet, of course, has always been trumpeted as being, if not free, then one hell of a bargain, and that point is valid. But as virtually all users these days have to pay some sort of monthly fee to go online, whether it's from SBC Global's whip-quick DSL or Time Warner's cable-ready Roadrunner service (both of which cost in the vicinity of $40-50 per month), MacKinnon saw (and continues to see) the benefits of free Wi-Fi.
"For me, the next step was incorporating this new technology into public venues and to make it so important for people to have that they need and expect to have it wherever they go, just as cell phones have become essential. You want to have Wi-Fi everywhere. It should be everywhere. And it should be free. And that was the impetus for the Austin Wireless City Project."
MacKinnon's enthusiastic proselytizing of the mantra of free Wi-Fi and Richard MacKinnon is nothing if not enthusiastic about all this was kicked into high gear earlier this year when venerable übercoffeehouse chain Starbucks announced that it would be teaming up with cellular phone provider T-Mobile to offer Wi-Fi service in all of their outlets, not just in Austin but across the globe. For a flat monthly fee of $29.99 (and with a minimum 12-month sign-up) T-Mobile users can access Wi-Fi "at over 4,000 Starbuck's locations."
Starbucks? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Starbucks
MacKinnon and many other Wi-Fi boosters in Austin found the idea of paying for wireless connectivity a bitter pill to swallow.
"That's really where the Austin Wireless City Project came from, the idea of creating an alternative to the corporate model," MacKinnon says. "And then that spurred me to reach out to other people here in Austin who were involved in Wi-Fi, specifically Ana Sisnett at Austin Free-Net and the leaders of the Austin Wireless Group. I told them, 'We need to do something here in Austin, and we need to do it right now, because otherwise this vision of "free Wi-Fi everywhere" is going to be "paid Wi-Fi in Starbucks."'"
Since that oh-so-Austin epiphany, MacKinnon and his team at the Austin Wireless City Project have been working daily to offset the Starbucks method, with "free" being the operative word. In the midst of the ongoing tech revolution that's reshaping the very fabric of societal reality, MacKinnon's notion that Wi-Fi should be free strikes some people (among them, most likely, the gang at Starbucks) as somewhat quaint. After all, why give the people a free service with remarkable ease-of-use and even tech support when there's a profit to be made?
"Business leaders don't always see the benefits of free Wi-Fi," notes MacKinnon. "They hear the term 'free,' and it scares them a little bit, but what they don't realize is that 'free' is generating a lot of money for people. It brings money into the community, it brings money into the hot spots, the coffee shops and so on we're in Quack's right now, and all the gear that's in here was purchased from CompUSA and elsewhere in Austin. A lot of money is part of the chain, the food chain, of Wi-Fi.
"For example," MacKinnon continues, "Schlotzsky's, which has gone totally Wi-Fi, has stated that it has increased their business tremendously since bringing in Wi-Fi, by something like 6%. I spoke to a food supplier here in town that was excited by that, and I mean very excited by that, because they said that when Schlotzsky's increases their business by 6%, that, in turn, means that they then have to buy 6% more food from their suppliers. So, when businesses and business leaders get worried about the word 'free,' they're not seeing the whole picture. They don't realize that turning their business into a free wireless hot spot is inevitably going to drive their own revenues up."
But is that really the case?
On a hunch, we called up two of the most consistently busy Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops in town to check up on this whole "increased revenue" thing.
A quick chat with Art Silver, the owner of Quack's 43rd Street Bakery, didn't sound too promising: "Does it increase business for Quack's?" asked Silver. "I really can't say. I know people are using it in here, but in overall terms, it's really hard to gauge what the effect has been. People ask about it, and when it's out, or if it isn't working properly people complain about it, so I know they're missing it. But as far as bringing in more customers, in my opinion, I don't think it really has."
Hmmm. Not good. But moments later, a quick call to Leslie Martin, owner of South Austin stalwart the Bouldin Creek Coffee House, was answered with an entirely more positive review of their Wi-Fi hot spot (which was installed by Zane McCarthy of Austin Unleashed, www.austinunleashed.com, a Bouldin regular and one of several other Wi-Fi outfits not formerly affiliated with MacKinnon's). Austin Unleashed's Web site cites "a revenue increase of up to 33%" since installation, by the way, although it's admittedly tough to measure Wi-Fi use and its impact on small businesses.
"Zane installed it for us about a year ago," Martin says. "The regulars seem to come here a little more, because now they know they can do their work here, and as a community coffeehouse and cafe, I think it's nice, because people who can't afford their own Internet service at home can come up here and share computers, so that's kind of cool. It's really a community-oriented thing."
If you happened to be in the vicinity of Republic Square Park that's the rolling, tree-lined, and fountain-sporting park bordering the northeast corner of Guadalupe and Fifth Street at noon or so on May 18, you might have noticed a crowd of people milling about and pointing up at a smallish little box and transmitting antenna attached to one of the park's southerly streetlights. What you were seeing was the dedication of the city of Austin's very first Wi-Fi hot spot in a public park, an idea that seems so obvious that it's a wonder it wasn't thought of years ago. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, MacKinnon, Lebkowsky, and a gaggle of media and geekerati attended the event and, well, much fun was had by all (or about as much fun as these sorts of midday techy kickoffs tend to be, which is to say maybe a little bit).
Building the AWCP One Park at a Time
In conjunction with the city of Austin, the Austin Wireless City Project has already installed hot spots in City Hall and One Texas Center, and this unveiling of the newly "heated" Republic Square Park is just the opening salvo in an ambitious plan by both groups to outfit all of the parks in Austin with similar hot spot powers.
MacKinnon notes another, unanticipated aspect of the spreading Wi-Fi wildfire. Since a hot spot's signal may extend outside of the nexus location, be that a Starbucks or a streetlight, the phenomenon of what is cheekily referred to as "drive-by Wi-Fi" has become commonplace: "We're just now seeing this, and, yeah, we totally didn't anticipate it, but people driving by in their cars know that there's a hot spot in Republic Square Park now and so what they're doing is just pulling into a parking space over by the park or anywhere within range of that transmitter, or any other for that matter, checking their e-mail, and then take off. It's pretty amazing."
No one can say for sure just yet what the emerging technology of Wi-Fi holds in store for Austin or anywhere else. Will it boost the city and retail coffers, or are we all going to be too jittery from drinking coffee all day while websurfing at Quack's to get a decent night's sleep until we're all frazzled Wi-Fi zombies, frantically searching for our next hot spot, gaunt and gamy but nicely tanned? Austin blogger (and occasional Chronicle contributor) Jon Lebkowsky (www.weblogsky.com) has some ideas, but chief among them is the notion that now that Austin has been established as the free Wi-Fi capital of the world (a recent New York Times article attested to just that fact), there's nowhere to go but up and out, spreading the gospel of wireless surfability to all and sundry across the land.
The New Next Wave
"Nobody anywhere, so far as I know, has organized and produced free wireless to the extent that Rich has," enthuses Lebkowsky, "to the extent that you actually have tech support for free wireless hot spots that are managed by a nonprofit that has no cash flow through it at all. What's happening here in Austin is that we're experiencing a ripple effect, where one hot spot goes up, say at Ruta Maya, and then it brings in customers and business and provides a free service to the community, and then other business owners hear about it and want to get a piece of the action. We're at a turning point now, and it's one we predicted, where right now free Wi-Fi has moved from being a value that you could add on to your business to being a necessity that you have to offer in order to remain competitive. Any kind of venue where you want people to hang out now needs to have free Wi-Fi. It's just that simple and it's just that important."
And it's not just here in Austin that MacKinnon's ideas and software have taken root. It's also happening in wait for it! Kabul, Afghanistan.
"It's true," MacKinnon says. "Just this past weekend, we found out that these Marines downloaded our software and set up a Wi-Fi hot spot [near the Baghram Air Force Base] so that they can have an easy way to get letters, or e-mail, really, home. Most of the troops carry their own laptops already which, by the way, aren't military issue; they bring them along themselves from home but because of security issues, the military doesn't put official hot spots out on their own networks. They don't want to deal with the hassle of having to worry about terrorists compromising the system. So, their solution was to do exactly what we've done here. They find a commercial but secure broadband connection, put an access point on it, and then people register to use it. ... I mean, if the Marines can put it up in 15 minutes in Kabul, then anyone can do it."
Ultimately, the future of Wi-Fi and wireless Internet is in the hands on the keyboards: your hands, mine, and Richard MacKinnon's.
"Austin has become the freest wireless city in the world," he says with unmistakable and absolutely infectious enthusiasm. "And I don't think anybody is ever going to be able to take that away from us. We've got such a head start, no one else will ever catch up!"
The Austin Chronicle will soon be available via downloadable format through the Austin Wireless City Project.