Montreal’s Ile Sans Fil is a volunteer group dedicated to expanding internet access in public spaces. Their activities demonstrate some of the paradoxes inherent in using grassroots commuity organizing to distribute cutting-edge technology.
Ile Sans Fil is a volunteer organization created in 2002 and composed of 40 members who donate their time to “providing free public wireless internet access to mobile users in public spaces throughout Montreal, Canada” (Ile Sans Fil, 2003). Group members are engineers, academics, students, technologists, artists, and management consultants. Castells might describe them as the “networked elite’. (1999). They are predominantly male, well-educated, and committed to creating wireless “hotspots’ in public places. Each of these hotspots shares a wired internet connection through a wireless router reprogrammed with open-source software created by Ile Sans Fil. The software ensures that every visitor to an individual hotspot sees the same opening page: a page that displays local art and provides the opportunity for the production and sharing of content relevant to that specific location.
Some locations, such as the Laika cafe and the a href=”http://auth.ilesansfil.org/portal/index.php?gw_id=25″ >Atwater library have worked creatively with the functionality of the portal splash page. The project is simple, charming, and effective. Local businesses are enticed by the potential of offering free service to their clients, community groups are interested in sharing local content, and new media artist have a mechanism for displaying their work. Ile Sans Fil is currently more successful than commercial wireless internet providers, with nearly 50 hotspots located in cafes, restaurants, parks, community centres, libraries, and other locations across Montreal. Part of their success no doubt stems from the cost of their services: establishing a hotspot is free of charge, after the equipment has been purchased at wholesale. The only cost for continuing maintenance and service is a $50 per year donation to Ile Sans Fil.
However, the diversity of the locations at which service is provided also distinguishes Ile Sans Fil from commercial providers: because of the low cost for setting up a hotspot, community centres, artists collectives and even interested individuals can afford to set one up, provided that they already have an internet connection and the roughly $100 it costs to purchase a wireless router. This accessibility has made it possible for Ile Sans Fil to provide wireless internet service to areas of the city that are not likely to be commercially viable. For example, the group has connected wireless routers in the relatively disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Saint-Henri, Pointe-St-Charles, and Petit-Patrie, as well as in the suburbs of St-Leonard and Longueil. They have provided wireless internet installations to community groups Communautique and Centre-St-Pierre, as well as to the Studio XX artists’ collective. These accomplishments are a source of pride for Ile Sans Fil members, who are keen to distinguish their service as both superior to, and different from, that of commercial providers. They continue to develop the portal page to facilitate easier and better-developed community content.