Wi-Fi And NBN Lessons From An Open Source Town

Free public Wi-Fi is still a relative rarity in Australia’s major cities, so how is it possible to make it viable in a town with less than 400 people? Newstead offers some interesting lessons about Wi-Fi, the National Broadband Network (NBN), open source and how to manage community projects.

All pictures by Dave Hall from his presentation.

IT consultant and enthusiastic Newstead resident Dave Hall gave a presentation at the first day of LCA2012, discussing his proposition that Newstead, a small community of 400 or so some two hours North of Melbourne, might be able to lay claim to being “Australia’s most open source town”. With a community web site running on Drupal and a free Wi-Fi service for the town centre based on open source technologies, that might well be true. But what can the rest of us learn from what has happened in Newstead? Here’s some of the key lessons I took away from his very stimulating presentation.

People can be really clueless about security. Newstead has long had an Internet cafe in the main community centre, but in its original Windows XP incarnation it was almost ludicrously insecure. Not only did all users have full admin rights, many stored documents permanently on the hard drives. “People had been doing their tax returns on their computers,” Hall said. “There were CVs and letters of demand on there.” That group of PCs has now been replaced with a standard platform running Ubuntu 10.04, with limited rights for users to ensure security and documents wiped nightly to ensure privacy.

Setting up basic community Wi-Fi is possible and not too pricey. The town Wi-Fi project, to ensure equal access for residents who otherwise might not get online at all as well as encourage tourists to stop, was constructed relatively cheaply; donations from the local council and free backhaul courtesy of Internode helped. However, that didn’t factor in the cost of volunteer help. As Hall observed good-humouredly: “Most of it has been built with donated time, primarily donated by me.”

You do need rules. For public and free Wi-Fi services, limits need to apply. The service has a connection limit of 30 minutes or 100MB, whichever comes first. There are also content rules: “We ban access to adult sites and stuff that’s not family-friendly, because it’s publiplaces and we’re giving it away for free,” Hall said.

Being in a small community has its advantages. As Hall was very ready to acknowledge, in some ways rolling out those options was easier in a small population than in a large one. “With less people around, it’s a lot easier to get things done because there’s less people to oppose things.” The flipside is that it’s harder to construct and maintain: “The problem is there’s less people to share the workload. It takes a bit of effort to educate people. It’s one thing to build everything but it needs to get supported.”

Good communications options are rare. Newstead provides an interesting example of both why the NBN is needed and why it won’t work for everyone. Newstead didn’t get ADSL1 until March 2005, and didn’t see ADSL2 until October 2011. Even that didn’t mean better speeds; when Hall got ADSL2 at his own house, his effective speeds actually halved.

The main reason? Ageing copper wiring using pair gain technologies, and an unwillingness on the part of Telstra to do anything to fix that. Those are the kinds of problems which appear to need a more radical solution — like taking wholesaling out of Telstra’s hands and replacing the ageing copper network to fix– to fix. As Hall said: “NBN fibre is awesome. I would really like it/”

Unfortunately for Newstead, when the NBN rolls out it will be one of the areas that gets a wireless service rather than a fibre option, something Hall is convinced will mean service degradation. “I consider WiMax to be the new dialup for country areas. Just about anyone can get a phone, but not broadband, and this is going to continue under the NBN.”

It does seem odd that an area two hours outside of Melbourne isn’t in line for fibre, though it’s worth noting again that its distance from Melbourne and location in Australia’s most densely-populated state hasn’t got it any good broadband options of any stripe to date. (Apparently the only halfway reasonable 3G option in the town is Telstra Next G; Vodafone coverage is non-existent and Optus’ tower focuses on the nearby highway.) It doesn’t sound as if Newstead residents would have a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude to additional coverage options, but right now no-one seems to be holding out much hope, and the chances of extra fibre spend in the current political climate are low.

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