Netbooks Are Only Part of The Solution

Netbooks are going to be huge, much bigger than they already are. Trust me on this. I say this not because I see more and more people working on them in cafes instead of on standard laptops—though I do. It’s not because I particularly want one—though for short trips I can see the appeal. It’s not because on a recent multifamily vacation one family showed up with one netbook per child.

It’s because my 70-something aunt, the one with the 30-year-old radio that you can only turn off by pulling the plug, and the TV that gets its signal from a 50-plus-year-old two-wire cable, just told me she’s thinking of getting a netbook.

Oh, it’ll be a couple of years before she actually makes the purchase, but the fact that she’s evening considering it is huge. The appeal for her is the cost, for sure—if it turns out to be a mistake, it won’t be a huge mistake. But what also is drawing her is also the fact that netbooks don’t look all that high tech. They don’t take up much room, they don’t have a lot of extra buttons on the keyboard, and they don’t do vast numbers of things she wouldn’t want to do anyway—like edit video or spend hours typing long documents.

But she has been thinking that it would be pretty cool to look up a fact she read somewhere but just can’t remember exactly, or check out a new medication prescribed by her doctor before she orders it. And that’s enough usefulness to make her part with $250 or so. Once she gets one, I’ll show her how she can keep up with all her grandnieces and nephews on Facebook, and she’ll be set.

Unfortunately, much as I would have liked to, I didn’t run out that moment and get her a new netbook. Because there’s one piece of this puzzle missing—some kind of community wi-fi access. It doesn’t have to be free, it doesn’t have to be fast, but it has to be there; easy to get to at a reasonable price.

Forget dial-up—netbooks don’t even come with built-in modems, and these days the bells and whistle of most web sites mean dial up is just too slow to be viable. Cable modem or DSL would mean new wiring in her home (she’s got one corded wall phone right now, no other jacks), and a box that would have to be installed somewhere, set up, and occasionally rebooted. I can’t see convincing her to go through that hassle and expense.

But community wi-fi would be perfect. She’d need nothing but the netbook, the monthly fee would be reasonable, and, while likely slower than cable or DSL, it’d be moving plenty fast for her needs.

Which got me wondering—what happened to community wi-fi, anyway? I called Sascha Meinrath, research director of the New America Foundation’s wireless future program. He told me that it’s been going great in Europe, but in 2004 or 2005 got sidetracked in the U.S. “The rationale of community wireless, bringing low-cost or free wireless to the masses, got usurped by the corporate model,” he says, with companies trying to figure out “how do we charge money for it.” And the corporations that cities contracted with to build low-cost systems didn’t have a lot of incentive to make those systems succeed, since they’d be competing with their own, higher cost Internet access offerings. Earthlink, for example, last year shut down its community wireless systems in Philadelphia and New Orleans.

The good news, Meinrath told me, is that community wireless in the U.S. may be starting a new surge. He sees encouraging signs in the efforts of Meraki, a Google-backed startup that’s building low-cost wireless networks for companies, universities, and communities, and other low-cost efforts. He’s starting to see municipal and community groups who looked at community wireless in the past but got put off by the apparently high costs getting ready to take another look at it. And, he says, the $7.2 billion in stimulus funds targeted at increasing broadband access can only help; he’s hoping communities will spend that money on low-cost open source systems instead of expensive proprietary systems to make it go as far as possible.

Now back to my aunt. She still wants that netbook—with Internet access, but without a box in her house. Community wi-fi may be coming, but not soon enough. So I’m thinking, next time I’m visiting I’m going to boot up my laptop and see if I’m picking up any signals; if I am, I’ll go knock on a few doors and see if I can borrow a cup of broadband.

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