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2005-05-13

Affordable Wireless Internet For All: How Media Activists Are Making Champaign-Urbana Illinois A Model For Community Wi-Fi

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We speak with Sascha Meinrath, project coordinator of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. Meinrath also volunteers with the Champaign-Urbana Indymedia Center which just bought a 30,000 square foot post office. [includes rush transcript]

We are broadcasting from St. Louis, Missouri where thousands of people have converged for a sold-out National Conference on Media Reform. Yesterday, legendary journalist Bill Moyers announced he will make his first public statement on the growing controversy over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS at the conference on Sunday.

This weekend’s conference in St. Louis follows one at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled "Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?" where Democracy Now! broadcasted from earlier this week. Urbana is a hub of independent media activity. The Independent Media Center in Urbana is one of the most active in the country–to such an extent that they have just bought the Post office. They are also working on offering free wireless internet broadband access to the entire city.

We are joined now by a member of the Champaign-Urbana Indymedia center, Sascha Meinrath. He is project coordinator of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network and is here in St. Louis this weekend for the National Conference on Media Reform.

  • Sascha Meinrath, member of the Champaign-Urbana Indymedia center and project coordinator of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by a member of the Champaign-Urbana Indymedia Center, Sascha Meinrath, project coordinator of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. He is here in St. Louis for this conference. Welcome to Democracy Now! It is great to have you with us, Sascha. Well, I wanted to focus on the broadband wireless and make it as easy to understand for people who are computer illiterate as possible. What are you talking about offering?

SASCHA MEINRATH: So what we are talking about offering is bulk broadband for cheap, so you can imagine speeds that are 10 times faster for prices that are10 times less. We are not talking about pie in the sky, someday we will have this; that’s what we are delivering right now today.

AMY GOODMAN: Now what is it that — you are talking about when people go online that they would have free wireless?

SASCHA MEINRATH: Right. Not just online.

AMY GOODMAN: In their homes.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Yeah, not just online. We are talking about a local area network, so imagine things where you can do streaming audio, live video, community web hosting, all of the resources, all of the different mediums that people use in their everyday lives within the local community, so everything from, say, the jazz club’s show to live footage of video from the local high school football game delivered for free over a local network wirelessly to the local community.

AMY GOODMAN: How can you do this?

SASCHA MEINRATH: Using off-the-shelf technology, software we have been developing for five years as part of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network and volunteer effort.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the Chamber of Commerce feel about this?

SASCHA MEINRATH: We actually received unanimous support from the Urbana Business Association, who realize that this is an incredible opportunity for businesses to take advantage of these technologies and the resources that they would make available.

AMY GOODMAN: How do the big telecommunications companies like Verizon feel about this?

SASCHA MEINRATH: I think a lot of the big corporations are sort of split. So we have Intel, other wireless groups like Tropos, all very supportive of municipal networking, and we have others like SBC, Verizon that are definitely not supportive, in fact, are attempting to eliminate this option from people’s choices at the local level. So we now have an unprecedented number of state laws being passed to make it illegal, in many cases, for any reason, to build their own networks for people to actually choose to, say, supply broadband that is much faster and much cheaper than, for example, what Verizon wants to give them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us an example — well, for example, Pennsylvania, what happened? Pennsylvania, the state, passed a law.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Yes. Pennsylvania passed a law where the entire state, except for Philadelphia, has to ask Verizon first before building their own network, and not just simply by asking for their own network. You are required to buy service at an unspecified amount, unspecified speed from Verizon for a year.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these are communities that Verizon hasn’t even wanted to wire up?

SASCHA MEINRATH: Yes. And that’s almost like, you know, it is a horrible law for consumers because they have fewer choices. But that law at least allows for broadband service provision for internet building. There’s a lot of states right now that have made it illegal for any reason for a community to build a network even if they are not served currently by broadband providers.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is writing the laws?

SASCHA MEINRATH: A lot of the telecom company lobbyists are writing these laws. In Illinois we had a bill, 0499, that would have made it illegal for any reason to have a municipality build a network, including if you are not served currently. So, you can imagine, in rural communities especially, this would be a law that makes it impossible to get access to information, which is critical in today’s day and age.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get more information, where can they go online?

SASCHA MEINRATH: We have a website, CUWireless.net, where there’s a lot of information. There’s also groups WifiNetNews.com and MuniWireless.com which has lots of resources and information on this. This is a major battle happening right now because these technologies are available but are being pushed out of the limelight.

AMY GOODMAN: Sascha Meinrath, we have to leave it there, and say thanks for everyone for listening this week, and watching.

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