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The Story of Chebucto Wireless

By Andrew D. Wright

Posted September 3, 2007


The Little Bank That Could

[Graphic: Australia] It all began with a bank in Australia and a conference in Montréal.

Australia's population lives mostly along the coast. Smaller towns inland can be hundreds of miles from any other population centers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the major banks began to remove their branches from these smaller inland towns as a cost-cutting measure. People living in these smaller towns would have to drive for hours to one of the larger population centers to do all their banking.

Bendigo Bank came up with a neat idea to service these areas - community banking. If people in one of these small towns wanted a bank, they could have one. The town would commit to using Bendigo as their bank, and like a franchise operation, the local bank would be run by the community with support from the parent Bendigo Bank, with revenue after expenses going back into the community.

A major success story, before long people in the larger urban areas were starting to want their own Bendigo Banks.

I heard the Bendigo Bank story at the Global Community Net Conference held in Montréal in October, 2002. The tellers of the story were using a similar idea to bring broadband Internet to the smaller Australian inland towns. If there were enough interested people in the community wanting broadband Internet access, they could get that access brought to their area.


The Digital Divide

[Graphic: Digital divide in action.] Here in Halifax, the Chebucto Community Net has been looking at ways of bringing broadband Internet access to the community at an affordable price for several years.

We have recognized for some time that the local Digital Divide, the gap between the kind of access to the tools of communication people with money have versus the lack of access people with less money have, has been growing.

Chebucto Community Net has been providing free and low-cost access to the Internet through dialup since 1994. We were providing Internet access and web hosting before Eastlink and Aliant got into the business. The trouble is that technology has moved on since then. Where once the hard-wired telephone was common, now it's largely been replaced by cell phones.

Poorer people tend not to have landline phones any more and cell phones are useless for dialup access. Commercial broadband Internet is too expensive so people tend to just do without, relying on public terminals to use the Internet.

Whose child will do better, the one with home Internet access or the one who has to share a public terminal somewhere to do their homework?


"If We Build It, They Will Come"

We approached both local broadband providers to see if we could make a deal to provide low-cost access through the Chebucto Community Net using their services without success. One did not even bother to respond. We were on our own.

Let me just pipe in with who exactly "we" are. Chebucto Community Net is a registered non-profit society. We're not a business, there are no owners or share holders. We are members of the community working together trying to make sure everyone is getting a fair shake at accessing the tools of communication, which we believe helps everyone at all levels of society.

In other words, "we" are in fact, you.

We looked at how we could provide the low cost high speed Internet access that the community needs.

Wireless internet seemed the obvious way to go. No wires to install, equipment could be picked up off-the-shelf, it seemed like the perfect solution. We started buying wireless equipment for testing to see how well it worked and began reading up on the various ways different communities had implemented their own wireless services.

I came up with the plan to use wireless nodes hosted in users' homes to offer local and government web page access for free while providing $100 per year full internet access over a secure VPN (virtual private network).

This made sure that users with no money could get access to the local online community and government information resources while giving us the ability to protect our users' traffic from being intercepted. Using a VPN would also keep our connection to the Internet from being used for evil purposes such as spamming.

The money from the full access would be used to cover the costs of running the service.

It was a great idea, a world leader idea in fact, since no other area to my knowledge has set up anything like it.

Chebucto Community Net would provide the connection to the Internet, the users themselves would distribute that connection from node to node in a mesh network. Each node could supply thirty or more users with connectivity. We figured three nodes on a low-rise residential block could provide connections to everyone on that block and the surrounding facing blocks.


The Sound of Silence

We took the idea to the local municipal, provincial and federal governments. They wished us luck but offered no other support.

When we announced the plan to the public at the April 2006 Chebucto Community Net Annual General Meeting, I honestly expected to come to work the next day with local news cameras in my face. I mean, the oldest running independent ISP in the province announcing it is bringing high speed access to Metro at a fraction of the current going rate is newsworthy, right? Well, not so much actually as it turned out.

We did get a nice cover story in local free paper The Coast several months later but no interest from anyplace else. Everyone we talked to thought it a nice idea but no one came forward with any money or resources to help set it up except for Dalhousie University, which graciously let us use the top of Fenwick Place, the highest building in Halifax, to distribute our signal. We have run a web camera from the roof of the building since 2000 so they were used to us climbing around up there.


Breaking New Ground

[Photo: Johnathan Thibodeau working on signal strength.] Over the past year, Chebucto Technical Committee Chair Ed Dyer, myself and fellow Chebucto staffer Johnathan Thibodeau have spent large chunks of our spare time getting the wireless system going.

With pretty much no budget for research and development, nearly every piece of equipment has been purchased by one or more of us three people using our own money (getting reimbursed by Chebucto later).

We soon discovered that virtually no wireless equipment behaves as it says it should, at least not in a signal-dense urban environment like Halifax.

After several false starts trying to get off-the-shelf wireless routers to act as nodes, Johnathan Thibodeau came up with a low power-draw node design using a modified personal computer with flash memory instead of a hard drive. He also came up with the Linux-based software the nodes would use to run unattended so node hosts would be able to plug the nodes in and forget about them. Johnathan, Ed and I have tested antenna after antenna after antenna, transmitter after transmitter after transmitter, all to find wireless equipment that would do what we wanted it to do.

Hurdle after hurdle was put in our way and overcome. Our first choice for a VPN was broken by Windows XP Service Pack 2. Linux wireless card drivers were temperamental or just plain non-existent. Equipment with a range in the countryside of more than a kilometre would be good for less than half a block in the city.

The technical demands of running the regular Chebucto Community Net became harder as the spam problem exploded last fall. Incoming spam volumes quadrupled while users were quitting Chebucto due to the amounts of spam getting past the filters into their mailboxes. Most of late 2006 and the first half of 2007 was lost to fighting spam and upgrading the Chebucto mail system.

Still we persevered. There is a need for what we are offering. Non-commercial non-profit community-based Internet access is an idea whose time is here.


Warm welcome?

[Photo: First two nodes in place.] Now, at the beginning of September, 2007 we are getting ready to bring our system online. Our first neighbourhood in Halifax is set to get $100 per year high speed full Internet access and completely free no-strings-attached local service.

We can bring it to your neighbourhood next, but you and your neighbours have to be like the people in the small interior Australian towns and help set it up.

Our challenge now is to make you, the people of Halifax aware that you have a choice in the matter, that you yourselves can bring this access to your own neighbourhoods.

We've got no money for a publicity blitz, no interest from the large local media outlets, no assistance from the large commercial providers and no financial help from any level of government.

And no one owns us either. Except for you and your community.


The Chebucto Wireless project page:

Chebucto Wireless:


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