By PETER GRIFFIN
SEATTLE - In the Aurafice cafe, a quirky, youthful hangout in Capitol Hill, Seattle's version of Ponsonby, Matt Westervelt sits on a battered armchair, a laptop resting on his knees.
By day, Westervelt and friend Stephen Briggs are system administrators for multimedia heavyweight Real Networks. In their spare time they are piecing together Seattle Wireless - a makeshift network they hope will one day span a good portion of Seattle and allow a free wireless network connection whether people are on a couch at home, walking through a park or standing at a bus stop.
Together with the creators of similar projects scattered around the world, they epitomise the open-source spirit of Linux buffs.
As Westervelt explains, with just a laptop and a cheap wireless network card anyone will be able to tap into the network they and a third wireless disciple, Choong Ng, are assembling piece by piece.
"One day we thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could use our laptops in the coffee shop or wherever we were?' " he says of the network's creation.
"It would be like the sidewalk where each business is responsible for maintaining the piece of sidewalk outside their front door. People would maintain their own antennas for everyone else to use."
Central to the Seattle Wireless grand plan are two things - the 802.11b wireless standard dubbed "Wi-Fi" which is powering interest in mobile computing and the unlicensed 2.4 gigahertz radio spectrum used by everything from garage door openers and baby minders to cordless phones.
To access the networks, users need a computer, preferably a laptop.
They also need to be within 60.9m (200 ft) of a wireless antenna, which communicates with the 802.11b wireless card plugged into the computer. The cards sell for about $US100 ($236).
Crucial is a network of "line-of-sight" antennas to transfer data between nodes. An antenna can cost anything from nothing to $US200 ($472).
"We made one for $6 out of a Pringles can. That one worked over two miles on a Pringles can, " says Westervelt.
"Line of sight is a pain in the ass but, if we can't see each other but we can both see someone else, then we're okay."
And when it works it is fast. The spectrum can achieve speeds of up to 11Mbps (megabits per second), much faster that DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modems.
Realistically, Seattle Wireless achieves data speeds of 6 Mbps.
The word is spreading. Seattle Wireless has a growing band of 400 keen node-builders who send details on their location, where they can place an antenna, and, most importantly, lines of sight from their houses.
So far Seattle Wireless has attracted widespread attention and praise, but little help from philanthropists with deep pockets or government.
"Microsoft are doing their own thing with Starbucks," says Choong Ng.
"We know a guy running for mayor ... maybe he'll help us out. I care more about wireless internet than a new subway."
But the loose organisation of Seattle Wireless may work against handouts.
"We're not a group or a non-profit organisation. It's a bit anarchistic," admits Westervelt.
Similar projects are taking off in London, San Francisco and Canberra, but the model's inherent weaknesses ultimately will see all but the most community-spirited shelling out for a commercial service.
Users joining Seattle Wireless get what they pay for.
If the network goes down there's no technical help desk to call. And if someone's Pringles can blows away leaving you in line-of-sight with nothing but thin air, do not expect immediate replacement.
In short, users will need much patience, a virtue that will become more important as demands on the Seattle Wireless network increase.
And with no control over the free broadband spectrum the network occupies, users will be vying for access with traffic from many other sources.
But Seattle Wireless is unfazed. Westervelt says users will be free to add internet gateways to the network, but local content and sites for community use will be the focus.
"We've drawn a line in the sand. It's gotta be free," he says.
A business plan in stark contrast to those of the telcos pouring money into building expensive wireless networks.
" They've already spent so much money [on securing broadband] they can't afford to build the networks," says Westervelt, pointing to the collapse of wireless provider Ricochet, which charged around $US50 a month for connection.
However, it is this commercial model which has been adopted in New Zealand by wireless network provider Walker Wireless.
Like MobileStar in the United States, it is setting up wireless "hotspots" in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, petrol stations and airports.
Walker Wireless secured a chunk of broadband spectrum in the Government-run auctions that closed this year which eventually will host the traffic of customers connecting their computer devices via the hotspots.
Meantime, like the guys in Seattle, they use the free spectrum.
By PETER GRIFFIN