Volume 76, Number 11 | August 2 - 8, 2006

Villager photos by Sean Siegel

This page and opposite: Paul Garrin on the roof of the McCarren Park Pool two weeks ago hooking up wireless Internet equipment for concert support staff.

Freeing the ’Net through wind-powered wireless

By Lincoln Anderson

Last month, Paul Garrin celebrated his birthday on a penthouse terrace atop the Christodora House on Avenue B. Seventeen stories above Tompkins Square Park, it was a serene setting, with sweeping views of the East Village and across the river to Williamsburg. But there was more to Garrin’s picking the spot for his party than its panoramic vistas. It’s on the Christodora House’s roof that he has installed his main transmitters for WiFi-NY, his noncommercial, alternative wireless Internet network.

In addition to the party, he was making a pitch to his friends and shareholders in WiFi-NY to help take the network to the next level, by upgrading its equipment and, ultimately, making it wind and solar powered.

After schmoozing and noshing on vegetarian fare, Garrin and friends ascended to a higher-level terrace, where he laid out the concept and business plan for GREENlined for WiFi, his latest Internet venture.

Like Garrin, some of the men sported ponytails. Others wore “Democracy Now” and “Peace Please” T-shirts. They listened attentively, trying to follow Garrin as he spoke about gigahertz frequencies — 2.4 is good, 5.6 has more range — wind towers, linking to European-controlled, “neutral” telco hotels and using lasers “to build our backbone over the air.”

The first to bring wireless broadband to the East Village, Garrin launched his WiFi-NY network three years ago. Beaming out his signal on unrestricted spectrum — the same one used by cordless phones — he can reach anywhere with a clear line of sight from Christodora House on E. Ninth St. By going airborne, rather than relying on underground cables and D.S.L., for which Time-Warner and Verizon hold the franchises, WiFi maintains “network neutrality,” Garrin stressed. Plus, having to pay the $10,000 to $12,000 monthly fee for using the underground infrastructure is avoided. Using the airwaves is also a way to avoid surveillance — especially when the messages are encrypted for extra protection — he added.

“Even if they intercept it, they have to crack it,” he explained.

Garrin’s goal is to raise $250,000 to upgrade the network. The improvements would boost its speed and increase both the number of people who can be served and the coverage area. Currently, Garrin provides service to the East Village, Lower East Side and Williamsburg, where he has a transmitter by McCarren Park.

He wants to keep control of the network in the community by building the subscriber base locally, although it’s admittedly a private company. Speaking of “network convergence,” he envisions East Villagers being able to broadcast TV shows over the ’Net from their apartments — in other words, East Village television.

“The future of public access isn’t Manhattan Neighborhood Network, it’s this kind of broadband,” he said. “We can do live TV shows from Tompkins Square Park…. The fact that there’s no regulation allows us to do this.”

To provide WiFi to customers in an area not already set up for it, Garrin installs equipment on the building’s roof.

“Ninety percent of the time, supers are O.K. with it,” he noted.

As for the “green” in GREENlined, Garrin hopes to raise enough funds to purchase vertical wind turbines — made by a Bronx company, they look a bit like large Twizzlers — to power the network. Coupled with solar panels, the green-powered network would continue functioning during a blackout. Another benefit, as opposed to wind turbines with propellerlike blades, the vertical ones don’t kill birds, he pointed out.

Judy Rhodes, who owns the landmarked Charlie Parker House on Avenue B, former home of the bebop legend, is a WiFi-NY subscriber. After his presentation, she asked Garrin if he’d adjust her receiver because her reception had been a little off. Because her building is almost straight down from the Christodora House’s penthouse, it’s a bit hard to hit there, Garrin admitted, since the signal is basically beaming out, rather than down, from Christodora. But Garrin said he could fix it, no problem. It’s just a matter of positioning the equipment correctly.

“There’s an art to it,” he said.

Rhodes also gets Time-Warner service because she loves to surf the ’Net, but plans to drop it once Garrin’s network speed increases and since, she said with relish, “I love to stick it to Time-Warner.”

Similarly, it’s hard for Michael Rosen, who allows Garrin to install his equipment on his penthouse terrace, to get service from WiFi-NY — again because the signal is beaming out from — not into — Christodora House.

Garrin plans to solve the problem by connecting the transmitter to an existing electrical wire running into Rosen’s apartment, which will carry the signal to Rosen’s computer. This can be done, Garrin assures.

Indeed, Garrin has a history of doing things his own way — and of being on the cutting edge of both art and technology. He became famous for breaking the story of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot. He had been doing video camera work at Broadway Video in Midtown, when a brownout hit, and taking a taxi home to the East Village, he found himself in the middle of the riot. He jumped on top of a van and started filming with his camcorder. Police were swinging their clubs at him yelling at him to get down.

“I’m getting down! I’m getting down!” Garrin yelled, as he kept filming. It was before TV news started accepting people’s videotapes, but he managed to interest a station in his. The story got out, helping spark the “camcorder revolution.”

“This was two years before Rodney King,” Garrin noted. He subsequently became the inspiration for the camcorder-toting character Mark in Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent.”

Garrin, from Camden, N.J., came to the East Village in 1978 to study fine art at Cooper Union. In the 1980s, he became a main collaborator of acclaimed video artist Nam June Paik.

Through teaching a Photoshop-type class at New York University, Garrin got into computers in 1995, and immediately started pushing the boundaries. He filed an antitrust suit in 1997 over the issue of domain names — like .net, .com and .org — arguing that the process of creating a new domain name was too restrictive and expensive because it was controlled by U.S. government-sanctioned monopolies. Garrin, for example, was the first to use the domain name .info.

“The reason you can buy a domain name for $10 is because I sued Network Solutions,” he said.

In 2001, with Frank Morales and Christine Wang, he founded Free.The.Media!, an autonomous think tank whose purpose, according to its Web page, is to “reclaim public space on the ’Net and preserve free expression, privacy and access for all, through education, community ownership of media infrastructure and the development of open-source software.”

For now, Garrin is focusing on raising capital for GREENlined for WiFi-NY. He’s “selling pixels” for 25 cents a pop and hopes to sell 1 million of them, totally filling his greenlined.org home page with ads or messages from the buyers.

This summer he’s also putting in his equipment at outdoor concert venues where installing traditional Internet infrastructure would be impractical. Two weeks ago, he spent a day on the roof of the McCarren Park Pool hooking up WiFi-NY for concert support staff.

“I installed all the hardware and made technical adjustments,” Garrin e-mailed The Villager later that afternoon. “As you can see, I’m able to send my e-mail over WiFi-NY from here on the rooftop, looking back at the East Village from Williamsburg!

“Best of all, the link is fast and clean and the client is happy.”

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