Antenna to the East

By Stephen Lewis

My old friend Stephen Lewis, a native of Manhattan's Lower East Side and a part-time resident of what he calls "The People's Republic of Brooklyn," has long made his primary home in Sofia, Bulgaria. A citizen of both the U.S. and Holland, Steve is veteran of Europe's telecom industry (also a two-time Fulbright Scholar). Lately he has been interested in applying in Bulgaria what neighborhood wireless folks have been learning in New York City. So he eagerly joined my wi-fi explorations through his old neighborhood, and a number of meetings as well. Here's his report. - DS

Wi-fi is an extremely liberating technology. Now I can now travel to work in, say, Paris or Amsterdam -- Paris having kicked-off one the world’s most ambitious wi-fi development plans and Amsterdam having just introduced free wi-fi in at least one of its popular café-lined squares -- without stuffing my bag with cables, phone jacks and alligator clips, and without paying year-in-year-out for rarely-used local dial-up accounts or low-speed GSM mobile data connections at over-priced, unregulated international roaming rates.

But, for me, Bulgaria is the challenge. Here in New York I wanted to examine the gains wi-fi would offer to the infrastructure, economy, and people of the country that has been my adopted home for more than a decade. Over the last month, I have been shaping a number of proposals for wi-fi based public service initiatives to serve Sofia, and neglected villages of Bulgaria’s country-side. New York wi-fi discoveries have sharpened my enthusiasm and insight.

Sofia is a good candidate for wi-fi deployment. It is home to several universities and some of Europe’s most technically sophisticated young people. Few westerners realize that, prior to the implosion of communism in 1989, Bulgaria had been well on its way to becoming the Soviet Bloc’s own 'Silicon Valley'. In the 1990s, Bulgaria’s underemployed young hackers kept their skills in shape by developing and exporting a steady flow of computer viruses. Today, Bulgaria enjoys a substantial software development community, Linux included.

In Sofia and other cities, Bulgaria’s leading ISPs currently offer a form of wireless broadband distributed from television towers or other broadcasting points to wi-fi access points on users' premises. At least one Sofia-based university has reportedly issued an RFP for a turnkey wi-fi installation project. I have also found websites for a number of services claiming to offer prepaid wi-fi access.

Public-access wi-fi on the New York model does not yet exist in Sofia nor elsewhere in Bulgaria; nor is there an active wi-fi alliance. It is my aim to gain EU or US sponsorship to precipitate both.

The obvious starting point for wi-fi in Sofia is free access in the public parks, squares, and outdoor café sites that dot downtown Sofia (as in New York), and/or on a line through the center of the city using fiber from Sofia’s partially constructed metro system (as in Paris). This would be a boon for the western business people and bureaucrats that are flocking to Sofia following Bulgaria’s approval for NATO membership and EU accession. It would add substantially to the city’s infrastructure, facilitate Sofia’s role as a regional business and service center, and boost the attractiveness of the its downtown. Still, it would not directly benefit most Bulgarian computer users, few of whom can afford serviceable laptops.

Like laptops, Internet access is still an expensive luxury in Bulgaria, a country where mid-range monthly salaries are several hundred dollars at best, and far less for most people. Phone charges are frightening. The crash program to digitize Sofia’s phone service in conformity with directives for EU accession brought not only better quality connections but also a change in local tariffs from flat-fee per call to time-based charges. People who used to spend hours online now log off quickly. As for cable access, basic television services cost six or seven dollars a month, with surcharges of as much as twenty five dollars a month for internet access.

So, my second goal is to identify residential or business incubation areas with high desktop computer penetration, high need for broadband access, and low aggregate ability to pay for dial-up or cable access -- or, wi-fi as currently offered by Bulgarian ISPs. First on the list is Sofia’s densely populated ‘Student City’, a chain of overcrowded high-rises built in the early 1970s, following the lead of Paris, to isolate potentially rebellious student populations from the center of the city. Here, bandwidth could be bought wholesale from cable suppliers and transmitted to students free or at a token cost via donor-subsidized hardware.

My third goal is to look beyond Sofia to deploy wi-fi access as a regional development tool. Apparently, some years ago, the US Peace Corp brought wi-fi access to a former mining town high in the Rodope mountains, the natural boundary between Bulgaria and Greece. This summer I will look at the outcome of this project and identify towns and villages where a wi-fi ‘last mile’ can serve people and boost the economy.

I was impressed by the Linux-based solutions put together by Terry Schmidt (creator of Linux Pebble) and others involved in the NYCwireless effort. I expect local Linux experts will jump in and help out with all three parts of this project in Bulgaria. In fact, I doubt it could happen without them.