Two Different Visions of the Web Call KC Home

Kansas City native Isaac Wilder is fighting to put control of the internet into the hands of the people it connects.  All the while, mega-corporation Google connects Kansas City to its information empire.

Wilder spoke at this year’s Honors Colloquium offered through the honors program, which featured UMKC faculty and outside guests.  Wilder stood before a crowded auditorium and explained the urgency of his mission.

“If we are to make a better society, we have to be able to communicate autonomously — with one another — and we have to be able to do it on our own terms,” Wilder said.

Wilder is a 23-year-old Occupy Wall Street veteran and the founder of the Free Network Foundation. FNF is a Kansas City-based non-profit organization committed to building what it calls “resilient, responsive and accessible networks” that are “resistant to censorship and breakdown.”

The organization consists of Wilder and compatriots Tyrone Greenfield, James Yox, Charles Wyble and additional volunteers. Briefly browsing its website, thefnf.org, reveals the beliefs that characterize the group.

“We are an organization committed to the tenets of free information, free culture and free society,” it says.

In only two years, FNF has made an impact in the Kansas City area. It brought virtually free internet access to Posada Del Sol, a 60-unit senior’s community on the city’s west side, to a 200-family housing project in Rosedale and recently, to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a state historic site in the 18th and Vine jazz district.

Along with partner non-profit Connecting for Good, this group of cyber visionaries sees internet access as an essential human right.  However, the partners are careful to distinguish what they mean by free internet.

“We think of it as free as in freedom, not as in beer,” FNF says.

Even though access isn’t completely free, it is currently the cheapest way to connect in the city.

“It’s a little bit case-specific — but for someone just joining the network, it would be five bucks a month,” Wilder said.

FNF uses microwave dishes to beam signals across the city. The challenge of connecting to its network is line-of-sight.

“It depends on where you live. From this window right here, we could definitely set up a connection,” Wilder said,  pointing out through the auditorium window at the Miller Nichols Library toward downtown Kansas City .

“The way it works is basically if you can see a place that’s already on the network, you can join it,” Wilder said.

Oak Tower is 28-story office building in downtown Kansas City, built in 1913 for Bell Telephone Company. Now it has FNF’s microwave dish in one of its windows.  It is currently beaming the FNF signal to other microwave dishes to buildings around the city, called “FreedomLinks” that serve as the backbone of the network.

Just as FNF begins to grow, Google Fiber has arrived in Kansas City, promising the fastest internet speeds in America.  Blue and white work trucks have become a daily sight as Google busies itself to connect the city section by section with what  the company calls “fiberhoods.”

A quick visit to Google Fiber’s website promises that “a new kind of internet” is on its way, but some are not so enthusiastic about the mega-company’s vision.

The concern is over “net neutrality,” an idea that internet should be a neutral system of sharing information. Within [R2] this neutral system, internet service providers and governments would not control access to information or make various unauthorized uses of information.

The fear is that internet could one day turn into a platform resembling cable TV, in which customers pay for access to websites. This is similar to service tiers currently used in premium cable packages.

Even though Google has made no indication it will charge for such services, concerns remain that this could be a future reality as Google becomes an internet service provider.

“If you end net neutrality, you prioritize the signals from the big corporations on the net,” said Dr. Marc Garcelon, UMKC associate sociology professor. “It would change very fundamentally how your access to internet would work.”

What Wilder and FNF are building contrasts greatly with Google’s network.

“Google is the far right of the political spectrum and we’re the far left,” Wilder said.

On Wilder’s network, the users own the technology that connects them to the internet and to each other. They can use their connection however they choose.  Much of what Google promises will become more evident once the fiberhoods are active, but the trend and growing concern with large media companies is one of greater control of information.

“What you see across the board is a greater concentration of power and focus on particular narrative that fits with the overarching narrative of our society and reinforces capitalist ideology,” Wilder said. “It’s a little bit of a dark situation.”

Garcelon expressed a similar concern.

“There is an attempt to come through with a sort of soft-corporate control over information in the United States that is eerily reminiscent of authoritarian regimes,” Garcelon said. “The U.S. government is almost fused with powerful corporations.”

City Hall has made Kansas City a bargain for Google. The company is not required to serve the entire city and has been given free access to city assets and infrastructure. While Google promises a new high-speed future, Garcelon cautions that awareness of these issues is a problem.

“The problem is that if people don’t have the information, they don’t understand until much later, and what I’m afraid of is that with the internet, people won’t realize what they had until its gone,” Garcelon said.

Wilder and his friends continue to expand the scope of the Free Network Foundation’s reach, but have a long way to go. Compared to past ambitions, Kansas City is a challenge its members have met with enthusiasm.

“In the very early days, we threw around a lot of ideas like, ‘Let’s get a boat and let’s park it off the coast of Cuba and beam free internet into Cuba,’” [R3] Wilder said.

There are currently two spots in the world to try out FNF’s connection any time, free of charge: the bus stop at 31st and Troost or outside of the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 18th Street and Highland Avenue.

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