MONTREAL, Canada, 04 June 2007
Electronic music was playing in the café on one of Montréal’s most bustling streets. Some people were typing on laptop keyboards, others speaking with the barman behind the long wooden counter. In comes Michael Lenczner, a relaxed look on his face, and sits down at my table. “Let’s start,” I suggested, after we received coffees that would make for best companions throughout the interview.
Lenczner is a key figure at Île sans fil, an innovative cooperative pushing free wireless internet into cafés, community centres and other public spaces on the island of Montréal. His group, he says, was born out of a desire not to leave technology to companies or the government alone. This is how since July 2003 a bunch of developers and social techies installed their first wireless hotspot in a café, just like the one we were in.
With about 90 active volunteers over the years, Île Sans Fil now has managed to install some 130 hotspots all around town, using a nice piece of software. Wifidog is an open source solution designed primarily for wireless community groups, but increasingly caters to various other wireless uses. Now used in more than 36 locations, including at the municipality of Rosario (Argentina), the Tegucigalpa technical university (Honduras) or the Hull libraries (United Kingdom), Wifidog includes a web application that is geared towards building communities.
In Montréal alone, 40,000 people have created an account and started interacting from whichever Île Sans Fil signal they happen to come across. But building community and bridging the digital divide are two of shoes. Île Sans Fil is present in working class and marginalised parts of town. The ambition and focus is on creating a community of users that engage with technology, not to educate people about all aspects of technology. “We have an impact on who develops the technology,” says Lenczner. “You see, technology is always designed for one purpose, it’s hard to retrofit it,” explains the young social entrepreneur, who has learnt that lesson first-hand in Burkina Faso.
Back in 2002, Lenczner went to Burkina Faso with a Québec-based non-governmental organisation and tried to work with a local group in order to set up a wireless connection between four urban hospitals. The USD 10,000 project did not work out for a number of reasons, including the fact that the technology was not designed and developed by and for the local population.
Says he: “Seeing how ill-suited the technology was in Burkina Faso, I thought, let’s design our own software that works in open spaces here in Montréal.” This does not mean that Wifidog is not appropriate for certain places in developing countries. It is nonetheless conceived as something that would serve people who possess laptops and public spaces that can afford a relatively cheap internet connection -now at around USD 45 in Montréal.
When the municipality goes wireless
Libraries, small business associations and even boroughs are seeing the benefits of free internet access on their respective activities. Cafés – also called adopters of hotspots – who offer Île Sans Fil internet access have seen their revenues increase. Small shops and restaurants indirectly benefit from an increase in affluence by wireless chasers and digital bohemians.
The reputation has started paying off and now the non-profit group expects to increase the number of hotspots to 500 in the next few months. With more hotspots, more decisions need to be taken. Île Sans Fil finds itself at the crossroads, although as it stands, the organisation remains fully volunteer-based. A business-model Lenczner defends as being appropriate and in line with Île Sans Fil’s motivation. The proof? “We killed the previous business models that tried to charge for WiFi.”
In a recent newspaper article, a Montréal borough was mentioned to have struck a deal with Île Sans Fil for introducing wireless internet in all municipal buildings, a move that had other mayors taking notes. The freewheeling organisation might need to make adjustments to live up to the commitments and plans its founders and participants have in mind.
The value of local
For Lenczner, the internet is not about breaking all boundaries and. He looks back on literature that has inspired him ever since to see wireless internet as an advantage. Not because wires are absent, much more because he sees the geographical limitation as an advantage. Quoting Julian Bleeker who wrote Wifi Bedouin and Wifi art cash, Lenczner goes on insisting that the “Wifi creates a boundary at the core, which in turn creates community. It recognises the value of local.”
And by local he means the people around us, in the café. “We brought people to public spaces, students, independent workers, anyone who otherwise would be sitting at home, isolated,” he insists. To reinforce this, Lenczner’s friends have set up a community blog where Île Sans Fil users “meet” each other. They also meet in person and exchange, work together side-by-side, interact with the personnel. Even though glued to a screen, Lenczner says that “people do interact. People use computers in ways wouldn’t imagine!”
Interestingly, asked about Île Sans Fil’s international impact at the Community Wireless Summit in May 2007 in Columbia, Maryland, USA, Lenczner pointed at Wifidog. The software is under general public licence. It is documented properly and contributes to the growing body of free and open source software for community wireless. “Our project is also an example of citizens making a difference in how technology is deployed,” he concluded.
One example of constraints to putting that example at work in the developing world can be traced back to Cotonou, in Benin, where Wifidog presently connects 40 private users. “The low global bandwidth of Benin estimated at around 155 Mbits and its high cost do not permit us to integrate schools, cafés telecentres or enterprises in our grid,” says Boko Sena Abslom of Cotonou Wireless. A quote from a Cotonou internet service provider (ISP) sells the ADSL 1024 / 256 connection at about USD 1,000 a month. That’s 22 to 30 times the cost of an equivalent connection in Montréal.