Sonic is demonstrating again that it has its heart in the right place.

Now that Earthlink has officially killed its plan to deliver free wireless Internet access to San Francisco, Sonic has stepped up with a more modest plan for the city of San Francisco and downtown Santa Rosa. Here’s Sonic’s page about the Open WiFi Project.

As I understand it, the plan depends on the generosity of individuals. Sonic DSL subscribers are encouraged to buy an inexpensive wireless router at a subsidized price. When the router is plugged into the DSL line, it automatically broadcasts a free wireless connection, using 500K of the DSL bandwidth. Anyone within range can use the wireless network, with small ads appearing at the top of web pages coming through the wireless router.

The concept rests on the router’s ability to pass on its bandwidth to other similar routers within range, eventually creating a “mesh” network. Imagine ripples spreading out from each router; there’s a seamless wireless network when the ripples overlap.

Although there are vague references to small rebates, there’s only one incentive for Sonic subscribers to help out with this vision, and that’s because it’s the right thing to do. It represents everything good about working together locally to accomplish something that big companies have failed to do. At a time when cynicism comes all too easily, Sonic deserves praise for believing in a project that can only be built on optimism and volunteerism. Call them if you’re a DSL customer in Santa Rosa!

UPDATE 09/09/07: Sonic updated its coverage map to make it clear that its initial effort is focused on a square mile near Santa Rosa JC. The Press Democrat’s article today adds an interesting detail – the mesh network also depends on repeaters installed in high places outside, typically on light poles. An ambitious project but Sonic is required to think big if it’s going to survive. Support your local ISP!

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