Harpers | Isaac Wilder opens a black steel cabinet on the twenty-sixth floor of Oak Tower in downtown Kansas City and shows me what he hopes will be the future of the Internet. “This is the router,” he says, pointing to a box the size of a DVD player. “The ethernet cable runs out here, up through the floor, to a dish that’s beaming a signal out to the Rosedale Ridge housing project. There’s . . . 400-plus people, who have access to the Internet for the first time, in their homes at least.”
A local nonprofit, Connecting for Good, pays the monthly $125 bill for the entire housing project. This comes out to roughly $9 per year per housing unit — a far cry from the $70 a month that these same families would spend for the new high-speed fiber optic service Google is currently rolling out in Kansas City, which I wrote about for the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s even cheaper than the slower service Google is offering, which costs $300 for seven years of guaranteed access.[*]
And that’s the point. Wilder and his organization, the Free Network Foundation, have come here to wage war with Google, which recently cut a widely-publicized deal to bring the city a next-generation fiber optic network, and which turned down Connecting for Good’s proposal to allow multiple low-income families to share a single Google Fiber connection. It’s clearly going to be a guerilla campaign. Wilder, twenty-two, is a college dropout who wears stained Carhartt jeans and sports a thick strawberry-blond beard that seems better suited to a trapper than to an Internet pioneer.
“The one clear rule,” Wilder says of FNF’s philosophy, “is that the Internet should be treated as a commons, the same way that we treat our sidewalks or our air or our water. Everybody’s got a right to use it on the same terms.”
To do this, the foundation advocates the use of decentralized “mesh” networks that rely on microwave dishes to distribute a powerful wireless Internet connection. Wilder calls these dish-and-router assemblies FreedomLinks. Community groups can pool their resources, buy equipment to receive the signal, and distribute it to their residents. Because mesh networks share their signal and bypass the capital expense of installing copper or fiber-optic cable, they’re much cheaper than buying access from corporate providers like Google or Time Warner.
Wilder and his partner, Tyrone Greenfield, first set up a mesh network at New York City’s Zuccotti Park, to give Occupy Wall Street protesters access to the Internet. To Wilder and Greenfield, the Google Fiber project illustrates the dangers of letting private companies control digital access. Google might claim to be interested in expanding Internet access to the poor, but its real goal is to monetize the data their network can collect from its users. As proof, Wilder cites the terms of Google’s contract with both Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. “You can’t hook your own server up to Google Fiber,” he says. “So if you do want to publish something, the easiest choice is going to be through Google’s own services. This creates a sort of locked-in environment where somebody is using a piece of Google hardware, on a Google network, using Google services. You know every detail of their habits. Every detail of what they’re reading.”