Few of the ambitious plans, promised by dozens of U.S. cities, for municipal wireless internet service have materialized. That is, until Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle turned on
lightning-fast, free internet this week to hundreds of residents of San Francisco's public housing projects. He explains why it's the shape of things to come.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just a couple of years ago, municipal wireless Internet access burst onto the scene full of promises. Like plumbing, or electricity, we were told that Wi-Fi would soon be a 21st-century urban expectation for everyone, everywhere. Wirelessness would foster entrepreneurship, a more educated and connected populace, and, perhaps most important, a bridge across the divide between those who can afford to join the Internet revolution and those who can't.
Now, nearly all the plans for wireless cities have fizzled, including San Francisco's. But this week, at least a small part of that dream was salvaged – by Brewster Kahle, director of the nonprofit Internet Archive. Welcome back, Brewster. BREWSTER KAHLE: Thank you very much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What you did was you turned on Internet access Tuesday, last Tuesday, to approximately 260 apartments in the Valencia Gardens public housing project. Does this mean that they got access which they never had before? BREWSTER KAHLE: Yes. The whole housing development got access to the Internet and everybody got it at fifty times the speed that a DSL or cable user would get. So it's the envy of San Francisco. The fastest residential Internet access is to the least-served individuals in San Francisco. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're getting this super-fast service how? BREWSTER KAHLE: The enabling technology - there's a couple of them. One is by having a housing system that has wires to the rooms, which is great. But San Francisco's also put in a municipal fiber, so the actual - the city itself owns a fiber that runs around to the schools, libraries, public housing, all through the city. And by our lighting that up, anybody that connects to that fiber is suddenly on the Internet at super-high speeds. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much faster is it than the next-fastest Internet access? BREWSTER KAHLE: Well, a DSL is usually 1 megabit or 2 megabits per second and a cable modem - oh, I've never seen them go over 5 or 6 megabits. This starts twenty times faster than that, at 100 megabits, and goes up to 1 gigabit, which is ten times faster than that. This would even be the envy in Japan and Korea. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are the residents of Valencia Gardens who don't have computers out of luck? BREWSTER KAHLE: For people that don't have computers inside their units, there's a computer center that they can go down and use shared machines, and also training. So it's really part of a full outreach program. Ours is just one piece of a set of nonprofits. Let's think of it as the rise of the dot-orgs. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have any of the companies that provide competing Internet access services, phone companies or cable companies, complained about what you were doing? BREWSTER KAHLE: No. In general, everybody's looking at it fairly closely. They haven't found a model that works. What people tried to do, it seemed, is make it so that a Wi-Fi signal would make it into everybody's living room. And that's fantastically expensive. So we have to come up with a different idea.
And the way that we did this, and the reason why we think it's going to work this time, is we're only going to do part of it. We're just going to do the backbone. And we can get the backbone built very inexpensively by just having a half-dozen, a dozen sites around San Francisco that are well-located access points.
Then, if people can get to those with their own equipment, or with, you know, ISPs going and saying, hey, I'm going to get your apartment building online on this system as well, that would be perfectly fine with us. There's enough money if you go and cut it that way that I'm hoping that the commercial guys don't try to shut us down. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you're hoping is that you can set the standard for the city, the commercial companies can come in after you and supply that last inch to the people who can afford to buy it, and they'll leave your housing projects alone. BREWSTER KAHLE: Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they'll be enjoying better service than the San Franciscans who log in on Nob Hill. What does it mean that, in this case, the last shall be first? BREWSTER KAHLE: Isn't it the best? We could have done this for the rest of San Francisco, but the structures around our telecom infrastructure and cable infrastructure just haven't been really providing what it is the Internet really could be doing, which is much, much higher speed, much more interesting services – for everybody.
And we needed someplace to go and demonstrate it, and I'm very glad that it's actually in low-income housing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once you start serving the rich, is the competition going to suddenly start complaining or wanting to step in? BREWSTER KAHLE: Oh absolutely. I think that we're kind of given a free ride at this moment by the entrenched players because we're doing city services. So that allows us to get this fiber and not to have that gunned down. If we can go and cut this up right, then I think everybody's looking for a much bigger pie to share. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You run an organization called the Internet Archive, and its name explains it. You are trying to archive the entire Internet, preserve every page. Is there any connection between that project and this one? BREWSTER KAHLE: Absolutely. Our motto is "Universal access to all knowledge," and so we're trying to work with all knowledge by going and gathering the Worldwide Web, digitizing thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of books. We have movies, music.
But how can we go and get all of these materials that are coming from libraries, the web pages, to everybody? And the idea of having gigabit networks throughout our cities, throughout our rural areas, are going to be crucial towards having the great library we're all building together be accessible at all. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brewster, thank you very much. BREWSTER KAHLE: Thank you very much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brewster Kahle is the director and co-founder of the Internet Archive.