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From Keeping Away Snoops to Surmounting the Digital Divide, Mesh Networks are on the Rise

BY Carola Frediani | Thursday, January 16 2014

In Somaliland, locals build their own Internet where there is none (credit: Daniel Hastings)

From Somalia to Greece, from New York to rural Spain, an increasing number of communities around the world are taking back the right to build their own Internet, by setting up wireless communication networks. Digital divide, scarcity of resources, fears of corporate and government surveillance are the main drivers behind a growing movement that, by leveraging Wi-Fi technology, seeks to create open, free and autonomous networks to connect people.

These alternative systems, built and managed by their users, are mainly wireless mesh networks where people connect their devices to each other without having to route through traditional major infrastructure. They interconnect their wireless routers (called nodes) through antennas so that they are able to communicate with each other and also to share broadband services from the nodes that are connected to the Internet.

 There are mesh networks of all types and sizes, but setting up even a small one can be challenging. Especially if it’s located in Somaliland, an autonomous northern territory of Somalia, one of the few regions in Africa lacking fiber optic access. Here the Internet connection comes via microwaves sent over from Djibouti. And it is here where Daniel Hastings, 27, arrived in October 2012 to accept a position as an ICT instructor and de facto IT guy at Abaarso School of Science and Technology. It’s an elite high school whose mission is to prepare the brightest Somaliland students for international colleges. But as Hastings notes, it is out in the middle of nowhere.

Still, he immediately decided he wanted to build a mesh network within the school campus. The first problem he stumbled upon was finding proper equipment, from routers to cables. “The Ethernet cable in the school was degraded and not waterproof, so I had to buy a new one, but apparently in the whole country there’s no such thing as good cables,” says Hastings to techPresident. So he had to find a distributor in Dubai. Then, going back to the US over the summer, he contacted the Open Technology Institute (OTI) in Washington, DC  - an initiative of the New America Foundation -  that has been working on an open source mesh networking toolkit that techPresident recently wrote about called Commotion. “They sent to my parents’ house a bunch of hardware, especially Ubiquity routers, which are designed for outdoor environments and run with the Commotion software. I brought the routers to Abaarso and everything worked. It took me a month to build the mesh network, but just because I wanted to involve the students in the process. Otherwise it could have taken me 2-3 days of work.”

At that point Hastings also set up a few servers running programs locally such as OwnCloud, an open source alternative to Dropbox, so that students and teachers could exchange files and assignments without relying on external Internet. Bandwidth in fact was still a problem. Their download speed was between three and four megabits per second, “which might still be ok for one person, but if you have one hundred people sharing the connection it becomes impossible to use it,” says Hastings, who came back from Somaliland one month ago and is now about to start teaching again at a non-profit, to work on bridging the digital divide within the US.

He says the Commotion toolkit really made a difference, easing the process of installation. “When setting up a mesh network, you need specific types of hardware to work with each other. You need to configure the protocols. It is a complicated process. Commotion is so user-friendly that it does everything for you and gives more power to the end user,” explains Hastings, who is not an engineer. He was a political science major in college, even if he has always been keen on technology.

At the end of last December, the Open Technology Institute released a new upgraded version of its toolkit. The Commotion 1.0 provides users software and training materials to adapt mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks. It makes it even easier to use and understand setting up a mesh network and it results in a more stable platform. “Our hope with version 1.0 is that we've managed to create something that not only allows communities of all types to build a network that suits their needs, but also forms a platform for future technological innovation,” Thomas Gideon, Director of OTI’s Technology Team, tells techPresident.

The Open Technology Institute has deployed beta versions of Commotion with local partners in the US - from Detroit to the New York metro area (techPresident wrote about mesh networks in Hoboken and Red Hook) - as well as in India, Tunisia and Berlin. They gathered precious feedback from all these experiences, which provided examples of how people can use this technology around the world. “The community network built in Sayada, Tunisia was a valuable interaction between members of open data/open government movements and a media platform that showed us the potential for community networks,” says Gideon. Meanwhile, “the Red Hook, Brooklyn network was instrumental in allowing members to document police abuses, engage in a community mapping and planning effort, and connect additional people to the Internet.”

A screenshot of a Commotion promotional video showing a nonprofit in Dharamshala, India, running mesh network workshops

One of the oldest and largest wireless mesh networks is in Greece. The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (AWMN) was launched in 2002 by a group of people fed up with the slow deployment of Internet access in the capital city. Today the AWMN counts more than 2,500 users scattered between the urban area and the neighboring islands. Within the network data can move at a speed of over 100 megabits per second, that is 30 times faster than it does on local broadband connections. To add a node costs around 150 euros. 
“There are a lot of file sharing services, radio, forums, websites, video streaming, you name it. We maintain a VoIP backbone. AWMN is like the Internet only in a smaller scale,” Joseph Bonicioli, 38, IT manager at Infolex S.A. and the volunteer president of AWMN, tells techPresident. Unlike with regular Internet, though, people in the mesh network tend to experiment with services.

Usually users join “meshes” for the network speed, the cheap costs of Internet access, the ability to create and share platforms, and to socialize. But this technology also provides a secure and reliable system to prevent states or other organizations from controlling or blocking communications. In an era in which local and national governments are ready to shut down Internet access or cellphone service (it happened respectively in Egypt and San Francisco) when facing mass protests, and intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency snoops on the Internet, running dragnet surveillance programs, mesh networks are becoming even more appealing.
 “It t is impossible to disconnect us from the Internet. There is no single point of exit but many,” explains Bonicioli. “To bring our connectivity down it means you have to shut down the Greek Internet.” Still, even in that case, the local network would be up and running. Moreover, since mesh networks are owned and run by local communities, they are more secure than traditional networks. However, they do not anonymize users’ identity by default.

The Commotion toolkit for instance does not include any anonymizing tools, even if it aims to work on this aspect down-the-line. 

So far, meshes’ biggest potential has been about bridging the digital divide on one hand and building communities on the other. “The AWMN covered areas with no Internet access, offering digital services to populations and places where telcos were not interested in investing,” says Bonicioli. The problems - since these kinds of projects are usually run on a voluntary basis - are always the same: the lack of time and money.

There are also political obstacles such as regulatory limitations on the sharing of resources and Internet connections. “However, most of the hurdles are social in nature, and involve communities determining the best models for governing their own networks,” explains Gideon. “Some communities have concerns around inappropriate or illegal content on the network, individuals using more than their share of network resources, and other worries. Consequently they are crafting their own policies, the process of which just raises an understandable issue of complexity rather than legality.”

In times of growing privatization of cyberspace and of centralization of services, it's like rebuilding the Internet bottom-up and in a decentralized way. “Mesh networking is about commons,” says Bonicioli. “It's about infrastructure built by users for users. It's a distributed and resilient structure. It's about freedom and community sharing. It's a potentially more secure network with less centralization and with a community-driven growth, where openness brings a lot of knowledge sharing, interaction, creativity and innovation. This is not something we can directly measure in terms of economic growth. However, our society is slowly learning to appreciate those multidimensional benefits.” 
As Guifi.net, a Spanish mesh network with over 21,000 members, writes on its website, this type of technology is not just about connecting rooftop Wi-Fi antennas. In fact it's about linking people.

Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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