Group aims for free Net

Internet service will seek monthly donations

Joshua Montgomery is trying to do his part to see that the information superhighway isn’t a toll road.

“Access to information should be free to everybody,” said Montgomery, a Lawrence resident and employee at the Lawrence-based aerospace company DARcorporation. “It is the same reason that the public library should be free.”

He and a group of about 20 volunteers have formed a nonprofit organization, Lawrence Freenet, that aims to provide free monthly Internet access – via wireless Internet connections – citywide by January. Organizers said they would seek a monthly donation from customers.

The experiment will begin Monday for residents near the intersection of 28th Street and Kasold Drive. Lawrence Freenet will install its first transmitter device in the area, which will allow residents within 3/8ths of a mile to sign up for the service.

To access the service, which won’t be available to businesses, residents must buy from the company a $150 box that will be attached to the side of their homes to receive the wireless signal. The one-time, $150 charge is the only fee that the company will require from users, according to the Freenet planners.

The group has already raised $7,500 to get the project started but it likely would take about $250,000 worth of equipment to wire the entire city, Montgomery said.

Donations needed

Montgomery, the organization’s president and founding director, said Freenet will need to generate more revenue than the $150 one-time equipment fees to survive and meet its goals. He said the group plans to sell advertising, which will appear when users are required to go through a 30-second authentication process when they log onto the system each day.

Advertising revenues are expected to generate about 30 percent of the needed revenues. Montgomery said the rest will need to come through donations from the system’s users.

“If you can afford to make a $14 per month donation, we would like you to do that,” Montgomery said. “If you can afford to make a dollar a month contribution, we would like you to do that.”

But Montgomery said the company would not send monthly bills or shut off service if donations are not made. But if enough people don’t donate, the organization could be in peril because Freenet must pay a monthly bill to an unidentified wholesale Internet provider that serves as Lawrence Freenet’s Web gateway.

Depending how many users sign up for the service, Montgomery said that bill from the wholesaler could be several thousand dollars per month. Montgomery said he was projecting that 50 percent of users would make some type of donation, though he said the organization could survive if that percentage falls somewhat short.

“I’m very much convinced based on the success of public radio that this is a viable business model,” Montgomery said.

Untested model

Whether the projections are realistic is an open question, in part, because Montgomery said there’s not a working model that the Lawrence group can mimic. Other cities have programs that provide free access to wireless Internet, but those programs receive financial support from local governments. Montgomery said his group has no plans to seek government funding.

Kathleen Harrison, membership director with Lawrence-based Kansas Public Radio, said she didn’t know what a realistic contribution level for a nonprofit Internet business would be, but she said contributors are nowhere near 50 percent of public radio’s listeners.

“It is about 7 percent,” Harrison said. “If a radio station had 10 percent, they would consider themselves very lucky.”

Lawrence-based Internet provider Sunflower Broadband officials said they also have questions about the business model of their potential competitor. Sunflower Broadband is owned by The World Company, which also owns the Journal-World.

“It may be a noble cause, but I think they may be underestimating the challenges and complexities that come with running a business,” said Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunflower Broadband. “To provide quality service to people’s homes is an expensive business.”

Knorr said Freenet officials also may be overestimating the difficulty people have accessing the Internet. Knorr said Sunflower, in partnership with city officials, provides free Internet access at the Lawrence Public Library. In partnership with businesses, the company also operates approximately 20 wireless hotspots that people can access for free.

But Kris Adair, a volunteer with Lawrence Freenet, said she thought the community would step up and support the group’s effort. Adair, an education student at Washburn University, said she became involved in the project after learning that many low-income children during the summer forget up to 50 percent of what they learned during the school year because they lack access to information.

“You can tell that this community really cares about kids,” Adair said. “So I have every faith that this project will be successful because it will make Lawrence a better community.”