Wi-Fi power to the people

As commercial Wi-Fi networks begin to pop up everywhere, fervent enthusiasts - including groups in Auckland - are working to join as many local networks together as possible

As commercial Wi-Fi networks begin to pop up everywhere, fervent enthusiasts — including groups in Auckland — are working to join as many local networks together as possible.

It might be simpler just to connect to the internet through an ISP, but that’s hardly the point — rather like calling a fellow radio amateur up on his cellphone.

Stephen McCormick, a Meadowbank node owner, says his reasons are altruistic. “There’s a great sense of community spirit, and a desire to network the city.”

The preferred equipment is generally an 802.11b wireless network card with a detachable aerial that can be put outside for better reception.

The antenna atop McCormick’s roof looks pretty orthodox, but ingenious network builders have been known to employ metalised Pringles tubes and empty coffee tins of the kind caterers buy. With these makeshift directional antennas they can extend the network’s range from 100m or so to several kilometres.

“We have a tame aerial installer called Wolfgang who is helping us experiment with old satellite dishes to boost the range,” says Cheryl Fillikes of the Laingholm Linux user group.

Others, such as McCormick, use carefully crafted multi-slot antennas carved from aluminium slabs by Andrew Hooper of manufacturer Borg. Hooper is pleasantly surprised with demand. “They’re very popular. I’ve shipped 15 to 20 units so far, over the last month or so.”

McCormick plans to test the limits of his by taking a trip to Devonport with a notebook PC and network card to see if he can log into his home network on the other side of Waitemata Harbour.

Much of the software being used to create the networks is open source, aided by online resources on sites like freenetproject.org, www.nzwireless.org and nodedb.org.

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