Anietie Ekanem was commiserating with a friend four years ago about his job in high-tech product management. The Stanford computer grad was already running his own consulting firm, but he wanted to do something more fulfilling. When his friend mentioned an article he'd read about wireless Internet access in Africa, Ekanem thought, "Oh my God! 'Wireless Africa' ... that's a perfect company."
There was just one glitch: The Rhode Island native didn't know the first thing about Africa or wireless Internet access.
His parents had emigrated from Nigeria 35 years earlier, but Ekanem had few personal ties to their homeland. Still, applying his high-tech background to a philanthropic project appealed to him. With two partners, he founded Wireless Africa. Progress has been slow, but the company is working toward setting up wireless hotspots at universities in Kenya, training students to install and maintain the system, and trying to enable distance learning by students and nurses.
Once Ekanem began educating himself about wireless access, he met the director of SFLan, a leader in California's tight-knit community of wireless proponents. During that meeting, Ekanem had another epiphany: "If I'm doing this overseas, why not do it in my own backyard?"
After all, Ekanem didn't need to travel to Africa to find an unfulfilled need. Internet access was also scarce in West Oakland.
Today, just a few months later, Ekanem is providing his neighbors with free wireless access. He is part of a nationwide movement of individuals and municipalities looking to follow the lead of cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco in offering free or cheap public access to high-speed Internet service.
Propelled by affordable, standardized technology and a proliferation of companies offering to set up such systems for free, these pioneers seek to provide service to residents who can't afford the $30 to $50 monthly fees charged by the major high-speed access providers. More than four hundred US cities have already deployed or are in the process of deploying some type of wireless network, according to the nonprofit media reform organization Free Press. That number is growing rapidly.
In the East Bay, cities such as Concord, Hayward, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek are launching or planning on launching citywide wi-fi, which is short for wireless fidelity. And just a few weeks ago, 36 Bay Area cities including Fremont, Newark, Palo Alto, and San Jose jointly unveiled a plan to blanket a 1,500-square-mile area, reaching 2.4 million people across four counties. The Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force aims to provide a free or low-cost service, with the possibility of including a faster, paid subscription.
But other cities have dragged their feet on the issue, whether due to apathy, wariness of past failures, fears of litigation, or concern about dimly documented health risks. While interest is gaining momentum, legislative challenges in Washington, DC, and local city halls pose a variety of hurdles. And even the movement's pioneers face increasingly serious opposition from existing high-speed access providers.
On a gray day in early March, about twenty people lingered outside the Boys and Girls Club at 24th and Myrtle streets in West Oakland. Around the corner, Anietie Ekanem was settling into his modest new two-story house. His living room had the sparse decorations of a tidy bachelor: clean and no frills.
From the outside, West Oakland might seem an unlikely locale for the next wireless revolution. But to Ekanem, that's exactly the point. "There's a definite need in this community around access, local community content, and being able to leverage skills and teach people," he says. "If the incumbents wanted to do that, great. But they're not. So it leaves a huge space for a project like this to come here and do well."
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