Does the Connecting of Anchor Institutions Benefit Communities?

The Personal Telco Project is currently working on finding new hosting for our primary webserver. One of the prime candidates for this has been Portland State University. Today, we were informed that one organization within the University has declined, at least for now. The prioritization of connecting so-called “anchor institutions” is seen in documents, such as the National Broadband Plan, as a means of benefitting the communities in which they reside. However, the internal focus of these institutions, and the holding at arms-length of organizations like Personal Telco Project that serve the community, leads me to question the assumption that “anchor institutions” are truly a workable vehicle for digital inclusion.

For most of a decade, Personal Telco Project has hosted a server at no charge in a colocation facility belonging to Integra Telecomm. Over the years, our internal advocates there left the positions of authority and influence, and a year ago Integra generously decided to give us a year’s notice and then end that particular arrangement. We are truly grateful for what they have provided us. As a volunteer-based non-profit with essentially no fundraising, we lack resources to pay for server hosting. Their in-kind donation helped us maintain our web presence without a substantial financial burden and let us concentrate on our volunteer service work.

With the clock ticking down, over the last year we have been exploring alternatives. Last summer, we had a conversation with a faculty member at Portland State University who thought that they should be doing more to help us. We wondered if PSU could host a server, and the faculty member thought they could or should. This autumn, we began making inquiries. Since early January we have been corresponding with a technical contact at Portland State, and they have been advocating on our behalf. Apparently this question was escalated to their CIO, and today we heard back that the answer, at least for now, is “no”. There are still some possibilities there, but the outcome remains uncertain. We had hoped to be moved in by now, instead we have another 10 days or so before our box has to be out of the Integra co-lo, and we don’t know quite where we are going to land.

We note that Portland State University has a mission statement that includes a section called “Community and Civic Engagement”:

PSU values its identity as an engaged university that promotes a reciprocal relationship between the community and the University in which knowledge serves the city and the city contributes to the knowledge of the University.
We value our partnerships with other institutions, professional groups, the business community, and community organizations, and the talents and expertise these partnerships bring to the University. We embrace our role as a responsible citizen of the city, the state, the region, and the global community and foster actions, programs, and scholarship that will lead to a sustainable future.

This would seem to allow latitude for engaging with us and offering us support. For our own part we have engaged with PSU, in the form of offering capstone projects to their computer science students, and would welcome more engagement with practical experiences to augment their academic offerings.

Our state of limbo sucks for us, but there is a larger question: Are public institutions, like libraries, schools, universities and governments really effective vehicles for benefitting the communities they reside in when it comes to access to the internet? It would seem that the answer is largely “no”. When these institutions get sweet deals on internet connectivity, through franchise agreement concessions, grants and the like, the benefits tend to accrue exclusively to those institutions’ internal customers. The benefits of high-speed connections to these “anchor institutions” rarely leak out to the community. For what it’s worth, Personal Telco Project has equipment and expertise it could be using on public buildings to share the internet with the community. We are ready to partner with anyone to make internet connectivity more available. It is always possible to invent reasons why you can’t be making things better. We encourage you to think instead of the whys and ways in which you *can* make things better.

If you have hosting space, with generous bandwidth and a few U of rack space you can share, please get in touch with us ASAP. Thanks!

OSCON 2012

In keeping with tradition, this year we will once again have a booth in the exhibition hall at OSCON 2012. We’ve been assigned booth 818 in the Nonprofit Pavilion area, and will be there from 10:30am – 4:30pm on Wednesday, July 18th, and from 10:00am – 5:00pm on Thursday, July 19th.

Access to the convention is limited to registered attendees, but you can always get a Free Expo-Only Pass to come see us!

If you’re familiar with Personal Telco and have some free time, we’d love to have your help staffing the booth – just come by, hang out and help answer questions and chat with visitors. If you aren’t already well-acquainted with our organization, this is a great opportunity to meet some of the people involved and learn more about our mission, ideas and technologies.

Hope to see you there!

Redeployed more SkyPilots on NE 28th

There is a burgeoning SkyPilot network developing on NE 28th Avenue, on restaurant row. This new network, plugged in today on the roof of Beulahland, joins the one near Arbor Lodge park in North Portland as a place we have managed to redeploy some of the equipment that the City of Portland gave us after the disasterous MetroFi experiment. We are hoping to find neighboring roofs willing to host additional SkyExtenders to enhance the footprint of the network. Keegan took some photos, which should make it here soon. We have another SkyPilot network deployment in mind, which should be arriving soon. Enjoy!

Get on the bandwagon and donate your roof and some internet to a SkyPilot network in your neighborhood!

New node at the Bob White Theatre

After weeks of planning and an intense installation event this
morning, we now have a brand new node at the Historic Bob White
Theatre. The proprietors describe this place as follows:

Built in 1924, the Bob White Theatre started as one of many simple neighborhood cinemas in the Arleta/Powell area. It ran primarily as a movie theatre until the late 1960’s when the stage was extended to accommodate live music. After that point it served as home to a variety of film, theater and music until it was closed in 1986.

In 1990 Dale Haskins purchased the theatre, using it as his private residence, and built a connecting warehouse that he used to restore pipe organs. During this time the theatre was closed off from the public eye.

Now, after being dark for almost 30 years, the marquee will soon light up once again. New owner, Nick Storie is beginning to breathe life back into the space. He envisions the future of the Bob White Theatre as a prominent new Portland entertainment venue, as well as a place where the Foster-Powell neighborhood can celebrate music, art, culture and community.

The network is now up and running with an Alix router and two Ubiquiti AirRouter APs. Two more AirRouters are installed and should be operational as soon as the building electrical wiring is completed.

The installation was arranged and coordinated by Matthew Klug, and performed by Russell Senior and Keegan Quinn, with assistance from Steve Tree.

We understand there is a major event at this node this weekend – if you’re in the area, you should stop by and check it out, and be sure to log on to the node!

Bob White Theatre
6423 SE Foster Rd.
Portland, OR 97206

Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen.

More information:

The last two SkyPilots from the public right-of-way finally delivered today!

Actually, “dumped” would be a better word. No notice, parts missing, strewn somewhat haphazardly. But I guess at least they bothered to finally take them off of the poles. Both of the power supplies were missing their lids. One looks like it had been sitting in a log pond, as the connections were heavily corroded.

The last batch were delivered on November 8th by the Fiber Guys.

Anti SOPA/PIPA Action

The US Congress has been considering two amazingly awful bills recently, even by their woeful recent standards, one in the House (SOPA) and one in the Senate (PIPA). Their purpose is ostensibly to combat offshore “piracy” of US intellectual property. The bills have had wide support across both sides of the aisle and with Hollywood, but they have been roundly criticized and attacked as the wrong solution to the wrong problem by many in the technical community. Oregon’s own Senator Ron Wyden has taken a lead role in opposing the Senate bill. In the last few weeks, as a vote has neared on the legislation, the technical community has rallied to demonstrate the profound depth of their displeasure over the misguided approach taken by the bills. A general strike, of a sort, was called for January 18th, today. Various prominent websites around the Internet are taking action, including Wikipedia and Google among many, many others, each in their own way. Some sites are “going dark”, others are linking to explanations of the issue.

Personal Telco, to whom Internet Freedom is of paramount concern, has long been opposed to the bills. In recent days, we have considered different ways of participating in the protest against the legislation. One possibility was to simply “go dark” for the day, to stop routing traffic from the free wifi networks we have helped to set up. However, we reasoned that this would disable the very communications that citizens would need to take action, to learn and communicate their displeasure to Congress. Therefore, Personal Telco decided instead that we would lay out in stark terms what we see as the stakes in this fight, and to display them in place of the normal splash page employed on many of our networks.

We see this legislation as a step down the wrong path, a path followed by governments like China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which compel companies to collaborate with the governments censorship dictates. We see this as a usurpation of power to control the access to information our government doesn’t like. Today, the issue is framed in terms of copyright infringement, but there is little doubt the targets would soon creep from there. If the mechanisms are in place, there is very little to prevent Congress from expanding the scope to WikiLeaks or Al Jazeera, or the next “unacceptable” outlet of contrarian information. We must not allow those in power to control and bound the scope of permissible thought. We, as citizens, must have access to the information necessary to guide our country’s affairs. The powerful have succeeded to a large degree of co-opting most channels of mass media. The Internet has remained the last best hope for regular people to maintain a thin reed of control over our “leaders”, an open conveyance providing a free flow of ideas. We must not allow it to be co-opted as well.

It is unlikely that those in power will desist in their efforts to castrate the opportunities provided by the Internet, unless the people that the Internet empowers make it abundantly clear that they simply will not tolerate it. The Personal Telco Project stands with those in favor of Freedom.

Despite the grasp that our Senator Wyden has demonstrated of what is at stake, other representatives in the area have thus far seemingly lacked the courage to stand with us. Senator Jeff Merkley has yet to announce a position. In fact, none of the Oregon delegation except Wyden have taken a public position on these bills. So, dear reader, take this opportunity to learn about what is at stake. Call your Senators and Congressman and demand that they respect that oath they took, to support and defend the US Constitution, including the Freedom to Read embodied in the First Amendment, as well as the right to Due Process.

The blunt words of our splash page today may yet help lead us all to a better tomorrow. In either case, normal operation will resume on Thursday. We would much prefer that distracting you was not necessary. Thank you for your help.

Personal Telco is not really an events wifi company

The Personal Telco Projects builds networks. But we are also a volunteer-based organization with a finite capacity. When we build networks, it is generally with the idea that they benefit the community and that they’ll stay operational for a while, where we get some community benefit bang for our volunteer buck.

Yesterday, May 31, I got a call from one of our nodes. Their venue is being used to host a conference on June 4, three days away. They were asking if we would install a key on the wifi so that they could limit access to the network. They are expecting hundreds of people to descend. The conference organizers wanted their speakers to have access to the network, exclusively, and think it’s likely that with hundreds of people there, our modest network is likely to melt, leaving everyone unhappy. I said no. I said putting a key on the network would violate our Node Standards, which it would. The network might very well collapse with hundreds of people, but we are a best-effort organization. We rely on the capacity we are provided. We make no guarantees.

Sometimes, we are able to accomodate conference-type events. We built a network for an early BarCamp in Portland for an event, when someone else arranged to provide the bandwidth. Advanced warning is desirable. If you are a conference organizer and relying on a network being available, it behooves you to pay attention to that requirement and make advanced arrangements. Conference wifi is notoriously bad. There is no excuse for letting that well-established fact sneak up on you. The primary reasons conference wifi sucks are (in descending order): the RF environment in congested circumstances; limited upstream bandwidth; inadequate DHCP provisioning.

This same venue hosted Bar Camp Portland 5 a couple weeks ago. The first I heard about them relying on the Personal Telco node there was at the social event the night before. I attended the event on Saturday, and although it was a little hard to get on at first, I did successfully connect. During the event, about 150 unique devices connected to the network. According to our usage graphs, upstream bandwidth never saturated, and DHCP leases were adequate. The primary problem appears to have been the capacity of the RF environment and the access points. As far as our sparse data suggest, we peaked at about 90 simultaneous users on two access points. Had we been given more warning, we could have provided additional access points (operating at lower power to try to limit their range) and dispersed them at finer grain throughout the building. Open Source Bridge is going to be using this same venue in a few weeks time. I understand that Stephouse Networks is going to be building their own network for the event, bringing in a fixed-wireless connection to the roof at something like 50Mbps, and dispersing a dozen or more access points through the building.

In a perfect world, with infinite resources, the Personal Telco Project could help more people build wifi networks for short-term events. Sadly, until that day arrives, conference organizers are going to need to take the primary responsibility for making sure their networks are adequate.

“OMG, FREE WIFI HAZARDS!” in the press again, stories contradict the headlines.

A few weeks ago, the Oregonian had a story by Bryan Denson that sounded like a scary example of leaving your wifi open. Then a few days ago, MSNBC had a similar story. The cases involved police tracing distributors of illegal material to an internet service location, and in the media they are commonly and periodically portrayed as one of the risks inherent in operating an open wifi network. The problem is, the scary headlines and stern advice are largely wrong or misleading. And in fact, if you are to actually read the article, the authors of the stories actually say as much.

Let’s take the first example. In this case, the police trace a child-porn sharer to an IP address, and from the IP address to a street address. However, contrary to the fearmongers, the police take the necessary next step. In order to build their case, according to the story, they do NOT assume that their suspect is the owner of the house at that address, but check to see if there is an open wifi network. In fact, they find such a network, identify the source of the illegal images as someone NOT at the service address, but rather someone else nearby. Through good police work, the authorities identify their suspect and arrest them. The story doesn’t mention whether the owner of the house at the IP addresses street address was ever approached at all! So, the text of the story is how dangerous it is to have an open wifi network, and yet fails to actually identify any actual risk!

In the second story, through bad police work in another child-porn case, a house is broken into erroneously by police and the home owner is assaulted because they did NOT do the investigation necessary to identify the actual perpetrator. But of course, the story is NOT about the bad police work, but rather how dangerous it is to have an open wifi network. With incompetent police work, everyone is at risk, not just operators of open wifi networks!

Repeat after me: “an IP address does not equal a person”. The sooner the news media and the police understand that, the sooner the former can begin writing intelligent stories on the subject and the sooner the latter can follow the professional and diligent example of the police in Milwaukie, and avoid the embarrassment of looking incompetent, possibly tipping off the actual perpetrator and risking legitimate lawsuits for assaulting innocent people.

An Open Letter to Jack Bogdanski

Earlier this month, Jack Bogdanski took a revisionist shot at Personal Telco in the comments of one of his posts. Mr. Bogdanski has a funny history with PTP. He initially praised us when he discovered PTP President Russell Senior’s node. He even used Russell’s node during a power outage. At some point, BoJack decided that PTP was combative. I believe that was the actual word he used, but I can no longer find the comment in which he said it. Removal of comments from his site is common.

BoJack’s issue with PTP seems to be two-fold. Firstly, our members have at times pointed out that while MetroFi was a failure, Portland tax-payers were mostly shielded from the costs. Secondly, Russell and I have both been outspoken proponents of public or community built (and owned) fiber infrastructure. BoJack apparently feels that fiber and WiFi are like services, and that MetroFi’s failure is a perfect prelude to what would happen to a public fiber network. Simply put, he doesn’t seem to tolerate the opinions of others very much.

I don’t really mind that he and I have different opinions about fiber, but it does bug me that he’s begun to act like PTP was in some way supportive of Unwire Portland and/or MetroFi. He really should know that we weren’t, and were often openly critical, because a number of those criticisms were expressed on his blog.

Yesterday I posted what I thought was a fair rebuttal of Mr. Bogdanski’s sniping at Personal Telco. It was posted until sometime in the early morning, when it was evidently removed for running afoul of his sensitivities. The entire comment is below. You can judge for yourself if I was fair. Whatever your determination, you’re welcome to comment.

Jack, you should recall, since this is such a big issue for you, that Personal Telco members were extremely critical of MetroFi and the way that Unwire Portland unfolded. I personally, when both a spokesperson and later president of PTP, criticized the Unwire Portland RFP and the assumptions the City made in planning the project. I pressed the PDC to be clear that property tax dollars were used in the planning phase of what I, and the majority of Personal Telco members, felt was a lousy RFP that was destined to result in a failed network.

Once the MetroFi network build out began, I criticized the performance of the network from day 1. The current PTP president (Russell, your neighbor, whose wifi you praised before labeling him “combative” for not agreeing with you) and another member did a serious analysis, on their own dime, of the network performance and encouraged the city not to allow MetroFi to proceed until they fixed the problems. When the city announced that the company they hired to evaluate the initial MetroFi build out determined that it met the criteria the city demanded, I wrote a lengthy, open letter examining in detail the faults with this testing and the failure to test the network under real world conditions.

Throughout the MetroFi project, Personal Telco members were derided by MetroFi spokespeople and called biased by many journalists and bloggers who felt we saw MetroFi as an existential threat. Obviously, this was not the case.

Unwire Portland, as it was handled with the MetroFi contract, was an abject failure. We predicted that. We also attempted to help the city (and that really means the tax payers) of Portland derive value from Unwire Portland in the face of horrible mismanagement by a company that no longer exists, corporate advisers who have moved to greener pastures (or new snake oil, if you want to be cynical) and both a CTO and PDC staffer who are long gone from Portland. Somehow, in your world where it is more important to make enemies than it is to make friends, you have decided that this makes PTP members combative and shills for a city government you despise.

As bad as Unwire Portland was, it could have been worse. The city limited its exposure pretty significantly in a climate where many cities were being pressed to take on much larger financial stakes in these networks. Did the city lose some money? Yes. Could they have made a better choice? Yes. Would it have been wiser, in hindsight, to never pursue Unwire Portland? Probably. The Unwire Portland process began in 2003, as I recall. It ended, again, in failure, in 2008. Over that period of time, the city and PDC together spent under $1 million. I’m not going to call that chump change, but put it in perspective. That’s under $200K a year, out of a $2.5 billion budget (, or less than one hundredth of a percent (0.008%).

Add up the time you’ve spent criticizing this project, or better yet, just the time you’ve spent sniping at PTP because some of us support public fiber (which has nothing in common with Unwire Portland, other than both of them being infrastructures that could be used to visit your blog). I bet that you’ll find you’re burning more than 0.008% of your life on this. It’s probably not worth it.

Thanks Unwire Portland!

In gusty winds and the first few drops of rain on February 12th, volunteers with the Personal Telco Project installed two of the SkyPilots that once were part of the ill-fated and badly managed MetroFi network in a new network adjacent to Arbor Lodge Park in North Portland. A SkyGateway was attached to a DSL service generously provided by Integra Telecom, and a SkyExtender Dual Band was installed on a house a few hundred feet away. On February 13th, the final connections were made and service through those devices has been initiated. In the coming weeks and months, we are excited about the possibilities for extending the network further into the neighborhood and, if it proves possible, into the center of Arbor Lodge Park itself. Thanks also to the City of Portland for a year ago making the decision to make this abandoned equipment available to the Personal Telco Project.

We are interested to hear how this new network functions, so let us know. Enjoy!