Happy Birthday Personal Telco Project!

10 years ago today, Adam Shand launched a little something he called the Personal Telco Project.

Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2000 13:21:41 -0800 (PST)
From: Adam Shand
To: PLUG Subject: [PLUG] consume.net: personal telco project
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just saw a link to www.consume.net on /. it looks pretty cool.
basically they are using 802.11 wireless technology to create a local
network infrastructure in london.

does anybody know of anything like this going on? if not is anyone
interested in seeing what we can do?


You can read some of the early Personal Telco Project mailing list messages here and here.

Happy Birthday, Personal Telco Project.

Personal Telco President travels to Vienna for IS4CWN 2010

Personal Telco Project President, Russell Senior, leaves Sunday to travel to Vienna Austria to attend the 2010 International Summit for Community Wireless Networking. His travel is being supported by the conference organizers to the tune of $1500, enough to cover the airfare. He’ll be participating on a panel discussing CWN Partnerships. He’ll talk about the Personal Telco Project relations with the City of Portland, particularly with regard to the Unwire Portland/MetroFi network. The conference runs from August 12-15th.

Personal Telco leadership renewal

The Personal Telco Project held its annual Members Meeting this week and filled its Board of Directors seats. Russell Senior was re-elected for another two year term. Marino Duregon is a newcomer to the Board, but has been coming to meetings for years and has been an active volunteer and suggester of good ideas. The two newly-elected members join Christopher Chen who was elected a year ago.

The Board of Directors will be meeting soon to decide on officers for the coming year, and to meet the ongoing challenges and opportunities with fresh ideas and vigor!

The Board welcomes involvement. Don’t be shy. Pitch in and help out. Maybe next year, you can take a turn as a board member of this venerable 10 year old organization.

Annual Members Meeting

Another July, another election for the Board of Directors. This year, 2010, there are two seats up for election. For the two seats, we have three candidates, so there will be some drama at least. If you are a member of Personal Telco, please make an effort to attend, on Wednesday, July 28th at the Lucky Lab on Hawthorne, and make your voice heard. If you cannot make it, try to get a proxy letter to someone who will, so that you can have your vote count in your absence.

Let me say a few words about Troy Jaqua. He has served on the Board of Directors and as our Treasurer since 2005, since the very early days of my involvement with Personal Telco. He is not one of the nominees this election cycle, so his time on the Board will be coming to an end. While we haven’t seen as much of Troy as we might have liked, he has been there when we needed him, filing our financial reports, getting our IRS status finalized, etc. In short, despite his scarcity at times, he has more than earned his keep. Thank you Troy for your years of service. We owe you a debt of gratitude.

Personal Telco helps out with HOPE

Last Friday, we received an emailed plea from Phil Willis-Conger with the City of Portland Bureau of Housing and Community Development for help with setting up a network at an event they co-sponsored with the State of Oregon, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, among others, called the Home Ownership Preservation Event. He had asked the City’s Bureau of Technology Services for help and they had been unable to provide any, referring him instead to us.
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Talkin’ Digital Divide Blues

Last month, bridging the broadband divide seemed to be a big topic around here.

First, I appeared on the KBOO program The Digital Divide. They invited us on to address some questions about community reuse of the MetroFi equipment, which we expect will be forfeited to the city in April. I suggested that since the city is already committed to the removal of the equipment, rather than attempting to resell it on the salvage market, we should redeploy it in a targeted area to build a community network where there is both demonstrated need and community support for alternative infrastructure.

Marc de Giere and Bram Pitoyo were very courteous, as they let me get off the topic of Unwire Portland and onto Community Fiber, which some of us are very excited about. We talked about the concept of building a citywide fiber to the premises network that would operate as a public entity selling wholesale service to an assortment of ISPs, telephone and video content providers. This would provide added competition, both in service pricing and options, and level the communications market for local providers, while ensuring that Portland has the right network for the economy of the future.

Cohost Marc also wrote up an extensive account of the show.

The same day, Russell appeared on the Ignite Portland 5 stage to give a talk about fiber. There were a couple technical difficulties, but overall he received a very warm reception, and it seemed to pique the interest of many who heard the talk. You can watch two videos of Russell’s presentation and view his slides.

My favorite point of Russell’s was that a single strand of fiber supports about 1000 times the bandwidth of the entire Clear network in Portland. That’s not a knock on Clear; it’s a great way to drive home how powerful fiber is compared to other technologies.

Finally, OPB’s Think Out Loud did a piece on the federal stimulus and efforts to expand broadband access in rural areas. Russell and I both weighed in on their forum, and made it clear that it’s more than just rural America that suffers from a lack of broadband availability. Within minutes of downtown Portland, there are many places where there is only one choice for broadband Internet service, and other areas where there are no options. While it’s easy for providers to wave these inequalities off by saying that it would be financially disadvantageous for them to fill-in unserved areas, that isn’t what we were promised when the federal government allowed them to be the owners and operators of our only communications infrastructure.

Now that there are many discussions about how federal, state and local government can contribute to expanding broadband access, we should all realize that it’s in everyone’s long-term interest to create ubiquitous infrastructure with open-access and bandwidth capabilities that will support our needs for many decades to come. We believe that fiber is that infrastructure. If you agree, or you’d like to know more, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thoughts on Clearwire

In this post, I share some of my thoughts on Clearwire’s presence in Portland, both as it relates to Portland and to Personal Telco. I stress that this is in no way a review of the service or a technical critique, as I’ve not used it extensively, nor do I have any in depth knowledge of their deployment. I’m talking here about the social, cultural and economic elements of their entry into the Portland market, and my opinions on how they might succeed or fail.

Sharing Not Allowed

[Update] We have been told by Bill Macfarlane from Clear that sharing IS allowed, and they have been selling service to many places specifically to operate hotspots.

My understanding is that sharing your Clear connection is expressly disallowed by their Acceptable Use Policy. In light of this, Clear is not a boon to those interested in hosting PTP nodes, or otherwise setting up hotspots in areas where DSL or Cable service is unavailable. While I find this disappointing, it is in line with the other major ISPs that operate in Portland, Qwest and Comcast, who both, by my reading, disallow sharing. It is also in line with the data plans of all the major wireless carriers.

Target Market

To me, Clearwire’s largest challenge is how they position themselves in the wireless and broadband markets. In terms of connection speed and availability, Clear looks best when compared to Edge and 3G wireless data services. Like these services, Clear promises an always-on data connection to laptops within the service area through the use of a fairly unobtrusive wireless card. If the current speeds hold with more users, Clear should be a compelling alternative to 3G and especially Edge, as it would provide a 1M+ service, where 3G seems to max out around 500k and Edge is little more than dial-up.

The potential problem for Clear is that smartphones have been steadily replacing laptops for many people’s on-the-go communication. Laptops are now typically only used in fixed locations such as airports and coffee shops, where WiFi connections tend to be readily available–and generally free in Portland, obviating the need for an additional subscription data plan. Additionally, smartphones usually come bundled with data services from the carrier, and are generally not capable of using peripherals such as WiMax cards, meaning that these users will not have compelling reasons to adopt Clear accounts, regardless of the speed benefits that the service would represent.

There is the possibility that smartphone manufacturers will offer phones that include WiMax chips, however, these are likely to remain niche products, similar to push-to-talk phones, since Sprint, by far the weakest national wireless carrier, will likely be the only carrier requesting such phones, at least until Verizon or AT&T develop their own 4G offerings.

Clearwire’s home service is probably well priced for users who do not subscribe to cable television, home phone or other services that provide bundled discounts on broadband. The lowest tier may also attract current dial-up users who do not otherwise use their home phone lines, as $20 represents at least a $5-10 discount over home phone service and a dial-up account, in Portland. Clear may also be invaluable to users who currently do not have wired options for broadband service, though it is unclear, to me, to what extent service availability rather than affordability remains a serious issue in Portland, so this benefit may be one and the same with my previous point.

Overall, as a fixed service, Clear is not game-changing or particularly novel, and I think it is unlikely that they will become a major player in Portland’s home and business broadband market. The appeal of their service will also wane as cable and (hopefully) fiber deliver exponentially higher speeds.

Performance Under Load

By far the biggest technical challenge for any new service is how it performs once it reaches thousands of subscribers. Currently, everything I’ve heard indicates Clear is performing as advertised, but that is, of course, with relatively few users. Clearwire’s infrastructure has a few potential points of failure:

1. Available bandwidth to the Internet. This is a fairly straightforward challenge, and one that should be very easy to improve as needed. Clearwire is positioned in one or more datacenters, where they likely subscribe to Tier One bandwidth providers. Within reason, accessing additional bandwidth is as easy as reconfiguring the circuit. Usage is monitored and adjustments can likely be made as needed. Like most (if not all) providers, Clearwire’s bandwidth will eventually be oversold, meaning that they sell more capacity than they actually have and bank on the expectation that only a fraction of their subscribers will use the service at the same time. Unless economic factors lead Clearwire to skimp on bandwidth, the network will likely not be oversold to the point that it will affect subscribers, as bandwidth expenses should be a relatively small component of Clearwire’s operating costs.

2. Throughput at the node. The greater challenge, especially with a wireless service, is the available throughput at the node (in this case, Clear tower sites). Clearwire’s technology should be more effective at managing client and backhaul connections (which may not be wireless) than MetroFi’s, but even so, there will be intractable technical limitations in the event that too many subscribers are attempting to access an individual tower (or radio). There’s no reason to believe that Clearwire hasn’t anticipated this by building more capacity than they expect to need in the initial years, and in fact, this is likely the case. Nonetheless, as I believe that this issue was responsible for much of the user dissatisfaction with MetroFi’s network, it bears mention as it has the potential to bring a service to its knees if it is poorly managed. As with their Internet backhaul, Clearwire will be oversubscribing their transmitters. The same calculus goes into it–that you won’t have every user active at the same time. Increasing tower capacity is more costly and not as easy as adding bandwidth, but with planning on the technical and financial sides, there is really no excuse for letting this degrade an individual user’s experience.

Net Neutrality

Clear’s Terms of Service are very, well, clear, they don’t give you Net Neutrality. Of course, neither does Comcast, and though some DSL providers might, they certainly aren’t going out of their way to support Net Neutrality. Anyone hoping that Clearwire’s competition would create a market that is more responsive to customer desires is probably going to be disappointed. By hewing to the status quo, Clearwire certainly hasn’t done anything wrong, but they don’t stand out either. This is a great example of why Personal Telco will continue to educate on, advocate for and build community networks. The best way to have a communications infrastructure that is responsive to your needs is to build it yourself.

Clearwire is not MetroFi

This should be obvious, but it seems like a lot of people (including a lot of “experts”) have wrapped together any project that seeks to provide wireless Internet access to an entire metro area together, regardless of the technology used or the parties involved. For all its failures, the MetroFi service was, to me at least, a much more interesting project from a technical standpoint. They attempted to build a city-wide network using technology that was nearly all unlicensed, which is similar to what Personal Telco volunteers have done over the years. Their motives may have been different and they certainly structured their business in a way that I would not personally have recommended, but on the technical side, watching them try and fail was fascinating.

Clear doesn’t hold the same interest for me, because I expect it to work, basically, as advertised. I’m sure there will be some business or customer relations hiccups, but, as far as I can tell, they are basically using licensed WiMax exactly as the engineers designed it. As a business test case, it will be interesting to see if Clearwire can compete with the wireless carriers for mobile Internet service, especially as their success will largely be tied to devices that don’t yet exist, but as a technical experiment, it just doesn’t feel very experimental. My guess is that Clearwire will succeed, however modestly, by still being here in five years, as long as Verizon or AT&T doesn’t introduce a competing high speed WiMax service that gobbles up most of the market share.

Personal Telco, of course, will continue to be here as well, educating Portlanders about the power and value of community networks, answering questions about wireless technology and maybe, if we realize as a community what’s good for us, leading the initiative to build a city-wide, public fiber infrastructure to provide equal access, and future-proof service to the entire city.

The Personal Telco Project needs YOU!

The Personal Telco Project is a Portland-based 501(c)(3) non-profit that got started in the year 2000 as a way to empower people to build wireless networks that benefit their communities. We have been working non-stop since then.

The Personal Telco Project is a volunteer-based organization that normally has very limited costs, and consequently as very limited financial needs. We don’t usually ask for money. However, we are embarking on a project to upgrade some of the networking gear we use at PTP nodes, and we are looking to users and other Friends of Personal Telco as a way to fund that upgrade.

Long ago we received a donation of discarded personal computers, which we have used as routers in many of our hotspots. The routers provide a means for us to administer the nodes remotely minimizing downtime, communicate with node users about the project, and deal with the occasional network abusers. These recycled PC’s were a good choice at the time, in that they cost us nothing and did a useful job. However, these computers have moving parts that wear out. Furthermore they are bulky and consume about 60W of electricity, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

We have identified a replacement device that is much more compact, has no moving parts, is about twice as capable and uses only about 5W of electric power. The only downside is that it is not free. In a bulk purchase, each one will cost about $175 to put together.

Initially, we’d like to buy 30 of these devices, which will total a bit over $5,000, and completely replace all of the existing recycled PC routers.

We’d like *YOU* to help raise that money.

So far, we’ve raised over $1000. If you can afford $20, $50, $100 or more, we’d sure appreciate it, you’ll help an organization that makes your life better and help us to make this upgrade a reality. And you’ll be helping to save some salmon or reduce global warming a little bit with lower electricity usage. Your contribution is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. And there is still time to donate before the end of the 2008 tax year!

You can make your donation by paypal here:


Or you can mail a check to us at:

Personal Telco Project, Inc.
P.O. Box 12314
Portland, Oregon 97212


Personal Telco gets some ink

The Willamette Week gave us some space in their “How to Live Cheap in Portland” piece this week. I think it does a good job on the “modelling good behavior” front and not being too much “these dudes will sprinkle the magic pixie dust on you (and give you free stuff)” that we sometimes see. Michael Weinberg is quoted thusly:

“If you have Internet, share it. If you don’t, and your neighbors do, maybe talk about how you can share the cost”

The one place that could have used improvement is in the sense that you might be doing something against your terms of service by sharing. Willamette Week says:

“Sharing connections may violate some fine print in Comcast and Qwest’s service contracts.”

What that leaves out is the choice that the subscriber has of an ISP where they would not be violating any fine print. That is, if an ISP is not giving you the freedom you want or need, stop giving them your money and give it to an ISP that does respect your freedom. You usually (though not always) have a choice. And, of course, some carriers would like to see you have less choice. We think you should have more.

Portland MetroFi and Coverage

We keep seeing reports of “Metrofi is roughly 30% complete in covering Portland,” but is that really the right number? Even though numerous reports say you should deploy at least 35 nodes per square mile, MetroFi took the low-end number of 25. While I’m not sure who came up with that number considering the gear used, terrain, etc., they still stuck with 25 per square mile. Regardless of what the reasons are, and most will point to cost, the fact remains that you are not going to get your 95% coverage as MetroFi were contracted out to achieve.

We can agree this is not an exact science, but I will say this: telling the media you are ~30% complete in covering the city is incorrect. MetroFi only deployed ~550 nodes throughout Portland, and Portland is 134 square miles (less major parks like Forest Park). If you do the math, even by using their deployment number of 25 per square mile, that’s only 16.4% coverage. Meanwhile, at what “experts” have suggested (35/mile), that’s only 11.7%.

Even though nobody seems aware on what they’re basing the coverage on, and what areas are considered “Portland” and “worth covering”, it’s nowhere near 30% complete. The MANY complaints people have mentioned regarding overall usability, and mostly those outside buildings, should not be surprising at all.

Everyone has their own definition of the word “coverage”, but the residents of Portland have a different definition than MetroFi.

Hopefully people can take this opportunity to create community networks in their respective neighborhoods.

Oh and one more thing… Sorry for beating a dead horse!