Before wi-fi was available everywhere from the underground to McDonald’s, residents of Deptford and Greenwich had free access to the Internet thanks to local network guru James Stevens.
James lives in Deptford and is the founder of technology company SPC. In 2001 after several web related jobs, including working in cybercafé and at a web boutique, he built an outdoor mesh network that developed into OWN, a free to use public wi-fi connection.
OWN was set up six years ago this month. James said: “We set up the radio on the rooftop, with a receivable area of 4-5 square kilometers. When we started, there was no high speed broadband like there is today. We connected to the internet via modem, and had to hear that uncomfortable noise while dialing up, which you can listen to on you tube.”
In a room of his workshop in Greenwich, which is open to the public on Wednesdays there are several desktop computers and photographs of building roofs and public spaces covering two of the walls. James explained: “They are taken from places where we have access.”
The main principles of the network are local, open and free, so no usernames or passwords are required. James said: “We don’t have any crypto key in the network. All the data in the network is clear, and without encryption.” As the system doesn’t provide security, users must take responsibility for their own online safety.
The community wireless networks date back to the late nineties. There are relatively few active networks in the UK owned and run by their users. The largest and most complete community model is the one in the Catalonia area of Spain. This network is large scale and is an example of community network success where shared skills and information has re-connected communities.
Community networks offer obvious benefits to rural communities who would not otherwise have Internet access, but how useful are they in urban areas such as south London? James admits that the numbers of people using the OWN network has fallen in recent years as the popularity of 3G smartphones has risen. “Users are now no more than about 50, while in the past there were four or five hundred people connecting.” He believes that there may be an educational use for community networks in the future. People wary of giving large media companies access to their data may also like the idea of a network run for and by the community.
Despite falling numbers of users, OWN believes that there is still a need for the service, and are currently preparing some new products to improve the network. They are reflecting on the successes of the past six years and looking forward to how they can meet the changing needs of the community in the future.