Community Wireless Networks Gain Traction

Nov 13th, 2013 | By | Category: Wireless News



Published: NYT November 13, 2013

LIKE most people, Kim Thomas has a broadband connection at home that she uses to check email, surf the Internet and stream music and video.

But unlike most people, Ms. Thomas, 56, a program director for a charitable foundation in Portland, Ore., has no monthly bill. All she did was buy a router and rooftop antenna , which not only granted her free access but also made her part owner of the infrastructure that delivers the signal. Total cost: about $150.

Ms. Thomas is a participant in the Personal Telco Project, one of a growing number of community wireless mesh networks in the United States and abroad. These alternative networks, built and maintained by their users, are emerging at a time when Internet service providers are limited in number (some argue monopolistic) and are accused of cooperating with government snoops.

“I watch friends who have cable and their bills just keep going up and they have no control but feel they are dependent on it,” said Ms. Thomas, whose husband and two college-age sons also use her home’s wireless mesh connection. “I feel like there are so many areas of your life that you have no control over and this is a nice piece in which you can.”

A wireless mesh network is essentially a network of a bunch of interconnected wireless routers, or nodes, which propagate traffic between users and also broadcast broadband service from nodes that are wired to the Internet. Think of it as a system of linked coffee shop hot spots where patrons at all the various coffee shops can send and receive data directly between each other’s devices, as well as surf the Web. Only you don’t have to go to a coffee shop and listen to annoying soft jazz to participate.

“Our approach is to build our own autonomous system and actually allow people to participate in the Internet rather than participating by proxy through Time Warner, Google Fiber or any other retail I.S.P.,” said Isaac Wilder, executive director of the Free Network Foundation, which within the last year has managed to construct a wireless mesh network that serves about 500 people in Kansas City, Kan.

Perhaps the largest and oldest wireless mesh network is the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network, or A.W.M.N., in Greece, which was started in 2002 by people frustrated by the slow rollout of broadband in the city. The network now has more than 2,500 users throughout the metropolitan area and neighboring islands and offers speeds in some areas in excess of 100 megabits per second compared with the 4 to 7 megabits per second from typical residential cable and DSL connections in the United States

“It’s really fast. But it’s ended up Internet access doesn’t matter for many users because the network has its own services,” said Joseph Bonicioli, an information technology professional who is the volunteer president of the association that oversees A.W.M.N. He said the organization had its own search engines, Voice over Internet Protocol services as well as “forums, social activity and content like video.” Some developers have used the network’s intranet as a testing ground before taking their concepts and applications live on the Internet.

Community wireless mesh networks — no one tracks how many there are but it is probably in the thousands worldwide — owe their existence to relatively recent advances in wireless technology. A lot of these innovations actually come from radio astronomy, where new techniques in compression, amplification and error correction have made it possible to receive signals from distant stars, planets and probes and are just as effective, if not more so, terrestrially.

“There have been some really incredible breakthroughs in the past 10 years,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute, or O.T.I., at the New America Foundation in Washington, which has been the nexus for the wireless mesh networking movement through organizing international conferences and funding community projects.

Last month, O.T.I. released its Commotion Construction Kit, which provides step-by-step instructions on how to set up a wireless mesh network using open source code and off-the-shelf routers and antennas. The kit is a synthesis of methods learned from the construction of community mesh networks.

Although available to all, O.T.I.’s focus has been providing the instruction to people living in repressive nations around the world, not to mention activists in the United States. Because mesh networks are autonomous from the wider Internet, they cannot be shut down by a government. The networks are also harder to surveil because of the way data pinballs unpredictably between nodes without any centralized hub.


It is ironic given the recent revelations about National Security Agency spying that O.T.I. has received significant financial support from the State Department. “And thus you see the many facets of U.S. government,” said Mr. Meinrath. “The reality is that the exact same technology that protects human rights workers and democracy advocates overseas is going to be incredibly useful for preventing domestic snooping.”

Of course, once you leave the mesh network’s confines and point your browser to Facebook or Google, all bets are off. You’re just as vulnerable to surveillance as anyone else. Like capillaries to an artery, mesh networks may ultimately connect to the Internet through typical residential or commercial Internet service providers like Comcast or AT&T.

But increasingly mesh networks are linking directly to the Internet’s backbone to achieve greater speed and eliminate middlemen gateways and their restrictions. This is the case for the Freedom Network in Kansas City as well as many European mesh networks includingFunkFeuer in Vienna, WirelessAntwerpen in Antwerp and Freifunk in Berlin.

“We are bringing the backbone of the Internet all the way to the home router,” said L. Aaron Kaplan, a computer security specialist in Vienna who is a co-founder of FunkFeuer and its current vice chairman. “When there is decentralization of the Internet, it becomes more resilient.”

A mesh network in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, for example, maintained its broadband connection after Hurricane Sandy when most major I.S.P.’s in the area went down.

Surprisingly, volunteer administrators of mesh networks said they had little problem with members abusing the service by say, running bandwidth-hogging programs like BitTorrent or sending spam. Either there are technological mechanisms that actively prevent that type of data transfer or people near the node that’s engaged in the activity start to complain about slower speeds so it’s not long before the culprit is found out and pilloried.

“Social pressure works for us,” said Mr. Kaplan.

Many mesh networks do not even have written user agreements, though administrators said it was understood that users were not allowed to generate undue traffic or interfere with traffic running through their nodes. To be safe, they suggest members use a virtual private network like WiTopia or VyprVPN on top of the networks’ baseline data encryption, which is advisable whenever using Wi-Fi at home or in a public space.

In Portland, Ms. Thomas said she was not concerned. “This is a relationship-driven network where we’re all in it for the social experiment more than anything else,” she said. “We know there are risks, but we’ve seen the commercial networks aren’t immune to being hacked.”

 This article is courtesy of the New York Times and author Kate Murphy

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