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"Internet in a Suitcase:" Not Really in a Suitcase, But Really On Its Way

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, March 21 2013

The so-called "Internet in a suitcase" project reached another milestone Wednesday as the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute announced the public developer release of the free open source wireless networking platform Commotion Beta.

Prominently profiled in June 2011, Commotion is designed to power a peer-to-peer or mesh wireless network. Devices on a network built with this architecture can have multiple points of access to the Internet for greater redundancy, and could also pass information between devices inside the network without a single point of failure. The premise is that Commotion can provide a secure alternative means of communication for activists when normal channels are shut down, or help people quickly get back online in the wake of a disaster by building one or more WiFi access points using Commotion.

The people behind the project actually dislike the "Internet in a suitcase" moniker — after all, they're building software, not hardware, and assigning physical dimensions to source code grates on the precision-oriented mind of an engineer — but the name caught on before their work became stable enough to test out or demonstrate.

Today's developer release is a step along the way towards an accessible final version that may be available by later this year.

A pre-release of the platform in September of 2011 provided a common mesh network platform engineers would use to build a larger communications toolbox over the next 12 months, a New America Foundation press release said at the time.

Today's release makes it easier to host other applications on the platform, such as secure email, Thomas Gideon, technical director at OTI, explained. Software enhancements also include a guided walk-through interface for users of individual nodes on the network so they can do configuration work themselves.

In addition, the release includes basic network encryption and an additional layer of security through the use of network keys and application signing through the Serval Project's Serval daemon, which makes it easier to identify bad agents posing as legitimate services, according to the press release.

Gideon explained that the improved security architecture of the new release has the capability to direct one node of the network to only communicate with another trusted node through signed routing, an important function for the free expression aspect of the project.

Earlier preview releases were more focused on enabling the mesh network to begin with and were targeted at people very familiar with that kind of technology, he said. This new release, while still requiring significant technological knowledge, is a step further towards a final release expected later this year that is more accessible to an average user, he explained, and offers more of a possibility that someone could "understand how to use it in a local environment and run with it."

Commotion developers have also drawn lessons from networks deployed during an Occupy protest in Washington D.C. and in Red Hook, Brooklyn, following Superstorm Sandy. While the Occupy use case was based on a very early preview release of the system through which the team learned some critical lessons about deployment, the Red Hook deployment after Internet access was lost following Sandy "was far more successful," he said, not only in terms of enabling communication but also with the set-up of a tool called a Tidepool.

That is a crowdmapping tool similar to Ushahidi that doesn't need an Internet connection, Gideon explained.

"What it allowed people to do was identify points of coordination in the neighborhood and where people had resources," he said, in addition to allowing for a communal messaging system. Jonathan Baldwin, one of the main developers behind that project, works for the New America Foundation — allowing for a short feedback loop.

"It makes it easier to enhance Tidepools so that we both benefit, Tidepools become more helpful, and we learn a lot more about what an application [like that] might need," he said.

The team has also used the extra network capacity from projects in Detroit and Philadelphia, which are mainly focused on economic development and increasing access to education and the job market, to simulate scenarios from the wider world, he said.

Later this year, he said, Commotion plans to deploy two short-term tests in international locations that share some characteristics with places where free speech is threatened, but where such tests could be conducted safely, he explained, though he said he could not identify the countries for security reasons.

“Commotion is an incredible resource for empowering communities and constituencies worldwide, helping with a variety of different needs, from spreading low-cost connectivity, securing communications, and enhancing disaster-response," Sascha Meinrath, a vice president at New America and director of OTI, said in a statement announcing the new release.

At the moment, development of the platform and its user interface is at its most advanced stage for use with wireless routers and routed Android devices, Gideon said. Versions for use with Mac OS and Linux are at an early stage of development with plans in the future for expansion to iOS and Windows. The goal over the next few months is to continually work on lowering the barrier for access, and to harmonize the user experience to be consistent over different devices, he said.

Gideon said the Commotion team is interested in having help with documentation, and hearing from people who plan to set up their own networks or are interested in testing the developer release.

techPresident reported last year that the New America Foundation was scaling up its technology efforts with the Open Technology Initiative becoming the Open Technology Institute.