A few months ago I met Josh King, who was in town for the Media Reform Conference. At the time, I recently got an Android phone and thought a lot about why this incredible computer that fits in my pocket could not talk directly to other phones. Instead it had to go through a tower. It turns out that such a case is a special instance of a mesh network, which is exactly what Josh was working on. It was exciting to hear this- because the potential of mesh networks are immense, but I knew no one who was working on them. He told me about open mesh networks being developed in cities around Europe- and I wondered- why doesn’t it exist here?
A few months earlier the internet was shut down in Egypt. Who would have guessed it? A week before it would be a work of fiction. But it happened, and months later the New America Foundation received some press about their internet in a suitcase.
‘Internet in a suitcase’ is the work of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, led by Sascha Meinrath. He came to the Berkman center a week ago to speak of the work at OTI focusing on the topics of community broadband, M-lab, and open mesh networks. He spoke of these projects anecdotally, and I recommend watching the webcast. Its interesting to hear about not only the growth of OTI, but the pressure against their work, and the propaganda spread against their work by telecoms- to an extent it boils down to who has more PR money.
But one thing inspiring about the New America Foundation is that any critiques they have are backed up with solutions that are ready to be implemented. One of the solutions, along the lines that everyone should have access to the web, is the development of open mesh networks.
I spoke with Sascha after his talk- specifically on spreading info on how to build these mesh networks. There is so much potential in them, including options for community level wireless, creating a platform for local applications, and the ability to connect if the communication infrastructure goes down (natural disasters, oppressive regimes). He mentioned a few projects happening, and I did some research afterwards. NAF is working on some projects in house, but is also trying to make connections between others who are working on mesh networking in some form. And here is what we have:
OpenWrt: Wireless Freedom : “OpenWrt is a highly extensible GNU/Linux distribution for embedded devices. Unlike many other distributions for these routers, OpenWrt is built from the ground up to be a full-featured, easily modifiable operating system for your router.”
The Serval Project: “Communicate anywhere, any time … without infrastructure, without mobile towers, without satellites, without wifi hotspots, and without carriers. Use existing off-the-shelf mobile cell phone handsets. Use your existing mobile phone number wherever you go, and never pay roaming charges again.”
Commotion Wireless: “and organizers here propose to build a new type of tool for democratic organizing: an open source “device-as-infrastructure” distributed communications platform that integrates users’ existing cell phones, WiFi-enabled computers, and other WiFi-capable personal devices to create a metro-scale peer-to-peer (mesh) communications network.” There are tons of resources here, this is one of the OTI projects as well.
Byzantium: “The goal of Project Byzantium is to develop a communication system by which users can connect to each other and share information in the absence of convenient access to the Internet. ” This is a project by HacDC.
FabFi: “FabFi is an open-source, FabLab-grown system using common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of up to several miles. With Fabfi, communities can build their own wireless networks to gain high-speed internet connectivity—thus enabling them to access online educational, medical, and other resources. ” And instructions on how to make it, all emerging form the FabLab project at the Center for Bits and Atoms.
DIY Mesh Guide: “Reliable, affordable and easy access to telecommunication services for all has been identified as key to social and economic development in Africa. Self-provisioning and community ownership of low cost, distributed infrastructure is becoming a viable alternative to increase the penetration of telecommunication services in rural Africa. The recent emergence of wireless mesh network technology (based on IEEE 802.11 a/b/g standards) can help to improve the delivery of telecommunication services in these regions. ”
So those are a few projects that are being carried out right now. I’d say if you’re interested in any of these, get involved. They are all open source projects, and benefit from a community of developers and users providing feedback. In the end, it will be an immensely useful tool for all. The people who first get involved will have an idea of the power of the projects, and like any successful platform, this will be a tool that will birth other tools. For instance, public apps. This has the potential to provide tons of jobs, not only to build the infrastructure bottom-up, but to also build on top of it, and think of new ways to interface with it.
Investments in public infrastructure have an immense positive impact on the well being of citizens. Korea and Australia are currently putting in a lot of funding on a public broadband infrastructure. The effects of this will become obvious in the years to come, and it will be clear that in the US such measures would have been beneficial. The above information resources and projects put such matters back in the hands of people. One can develop a mesh network with their community and allow people to connect cheaply, or even freely. Imagine the impact on education, information flow, and community engagement.