Originally submitted for TechTV and the Screen Savers program. The article can be found on the TechTV's web site here.

Neighborhood Area Networks

Connecting to the Net used to be very costly and technically challenging.

At best, you would spend days trying to configure your software. At worst, you would order an expensive dedicated line from your local telephone.

Wireless communities have changed all this. A wireless community, also called a neighborhood area network (NAN), lets you connect to the Internet cheaply and quickly, and with less grief.

A NAN consists of one or more persons putting up an 802.11 access point (AP), such as an Apple Airport or an Intel 2011, to cover a small geographic area. The coverage can be up to 1 kilometer in radius if the AP owner is using an omnidirectional antenna. Neighbors participating in the NAN would use a directional antenna pointed back at the AP.

Thanks to NANs, anyone can walk around with a personal digital assistant (PDA) and be connected all around the 'hood. For instance, while walking down to the local coffee shop on a Sunday morning, you could connect to the cafe's webpage and put in an order. Once you get your hot cup of joe, you sit down and start to use the cafe's local wireless network to check the New York Times. You walk back home and decide to make a run to Fry's to pick up the latest "Tomb Raider," and on the way you forget where Fry's is. You open your PDA again and connect to a nearby AP, get the address, and look up the driving directions from Yahoo! Maps.

This scenario can happen right now. The technology is out there and it is cheap. Folks are putting up APs faster than you can say "802.11." Peter Shipley, of the dis.org crew, drove down highway 101 and around San Francisco and found hundreds of APs. For now, though, outsiders can't access these APs. One way to convince the AP owners to open up their APs to outsiders is by allowing the owners to charge users for access.

This is a bit different than the concept of wireless deployment for "hot-spots." Companies such as Surf and Sip, MobileStar, and Wayport are madly deploying APs in small cafes, Starbucks, and hotels. These companies, also known as wireless Internet service providers (WISPs), are leveraging the low cost of the APs ($300) and cheap DSL prices to give fast and cheap connectivity in locations where one would want to sit down for a while and connect to the Net.

There are a number of groups supporting NANs. My favorite is the Bay Area Wireless Users Group in San Francisco. It specializes in education and interesting hacks with 802.11 radios. Also on the West Coast, Seattle Wireless is dedicated to deploying NAN infrastructure in, of course, Seattle. Portland's Personal Telco Project is attempting a combination of these approaches. And on the East Coast there's NYCWireless.Net.

A comprehensive list of other wireless communities can be found by clicking here.

So think about helping out the neighborhood a bit by starting your own NAN. By giving away the access or sharing your costs, you can lower the cost of connecting to the Internet.