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What if the net was as free as air?
James Stevens, Consume
Consume's James Stevens consumes the net
Forget monthly subscriptions. What if the net was as cheap as turning on a radio? And what if it meant you got to know your neighbours? BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward looks at a pioneering scheme that could make that dream real.

The net was supposed to be about community, about people with common interests finding each other in the limitless tracts of cyberspace and connecting like never before.

Except that usually it isn't like that at all.

Most web expeditions are lonely affairs in which users look at websites of interest to them and them alone. Dialogue, community and friendship are almost entirely absent.

Brixton house which was squatted for 16 years
Some squats have been home to early Wi-Fi networks
It has more to with pioneering than communication.

But some keen net users are showing just how different it can be.

Radio show

A scheme in London, UK, called Consume, aims to show people how to share their net connections, software and experiences using wireless networks.

Explicitly community-based, Consume aims to use radio net technology, known as Wi-fi, to set up nodes of connectivity that anyone with a wireless network card can join.

Trip the loop, make your switch, consume the net

Consume mantra
The ultimate idea is to free people from the need to pay high monthly bills for net access by letting everyone share the air.

London now has over 400 Consume nodes and far more users.

Consume founder James Stevens said activity was particularly strong in the Hackney and Hoxton areas of London. There he's helping to set up workshops on antenna-building so more people can join in the fun.

Mr Stevens tells tales of squatted properties linking up with both wires and wireless to swap music, share information and generally commune.

People are investigating using Consume nodes to do multi-player gaming, to stream music and share useful software.

"It becomes pretty self-determining," he said.

Road trip

The idea for Consume grew out of the efforts Mr Stevens made in 1995 to share an expensive high-speed net link with other local businesses.

Seattle Wireless Net logo
Wireless networks are springing up everywhere
Because it is illegal to string cables across the carriageway, Mr Stevens was forced to use a point-to-point microwave link.

From there it was a short step to using wireless and sharing the bandwidth much more widely.

"We found that there was indeed the potential for wide adoption and easy utilisation of the 11 megabits per second wireless kit for freenetworking," he said. "That's 'free' as in speech."

Currently Mr Stevens is working to set up five Consume nodes in Deptford that will be available to everyone.

The nodes will link to the net via broadband links and share that access via antennae sited on the roofs of several buildings.

It will serve as a pilot project to work out how best to announce the network's existence to the 5,000 people it could serve. It's likely to get some help from the Deptford X arts festival and the publicity surrounding that.

Turn on

Currently Consume nodes serve small groups or communities and all the traffic for that group flows through their links.

A Consume node is typically made up of a basic PC, a wireless card and some software that helps shuffle traffic efficiently.

Eventually the nodes will form a larger network that will manage and shuffle traffic on behalf of everyone.

Is it legal?
Consume have been told they are legal so long as they control "both ends" of the connection, and don't aim to make a profit
The success of Consume has prompted the creation of similar wireless networks up and down the country. Now there are Consume-type networks in Brighton, Luton and Edinburgh.

The Welsh Development Agency is even investigating using wireless networks to help rural communities get connected.

There are also wireless community networks in the US, Spain, Germany and Australia, all with the same aim: reclaim the net for the majority.

It's an idea that harks back to the net's free-wheeling early days when everything was done with an egalitarian, inclusive ethic in mind. It was very different to the ad-funded marketplace much of the net has become.

But with the help of Consume and a few friends you might be able to re-discover that sense of belonging.

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