(The French, original version of this article to appear in the next issue of 'Le Sauvage' http://www.lesauvage.org/)


An other Internet is possible: Catalonia and Germany as examples

When Wifi came up in the early 2000s, and it became possible to connect a computer to the Internet without cables, many hackers started tinkering around with hard and software so as to increase their in and outbound range. At first it was mostly about getting Internet in an outlying room or at the end of the garden, and then sharing connectivity between neighboors became the next stage. At the time Internet connectivity was highly desired, especially in places not served by ISPs, and the only way to disseminate it was to make it available for free and to share it as far the equipment would carry it.

It took a few months only for the culture of an always on, self-managed, free, decentralised, and F/OSS-based Wifi network to spread all over the world. Before ADSL became widely available, all cities of the world have seen clubs, associations or other form of collectives rolling out Wifi networks on voluntary basis. Most were by way of hubs, more sophisticated ones were meshed, and all saw various outcomes in terms of success. The cleverest hacks with antennas involved coffee tins, or deep-fry skimming laddles common to Asian kitchens, still used in many countries for directional antennas. Progress in reach extention went fast: at first hundred of metres then kilometres and then even scores of kilometres. Nowadays, all kind of industrial grade equipments are manufactured and sold worldwide, this despite very disparate national legislation in terms of the range permitted.
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In France, many 'Free Wifi associations' saw the light around 2001: all big cities, but also smaller towns like Montauban, Mazamet, or villages like Les Orres had their self-managed Wifi networks [1]. These networks were up for a few months or years, this untill telecom operators deployed cable connectivity all over the territory. So today a very few of these collectives are left. Some do it 'just for fun', others have an educational purpose to self-teach about network protocols and their evolution, and still others use them to connect sheperds' huts, isolated dwellings and mountain refuges. But the situation in other countries is very different.

In Germany you have the Freifunk self-managed network which is still growing steadily. Started in Berlin in 2002 if now aggregates 400 local communities all over Germany with a total of 41 000 access points. In scores of countries, very poor and very rich alike, collectives and associations run self-managed networks, some of them adding GSM and 3G technologies to Wifi , e.g. around Oaxaca in Mexico, boosted up by the Rhizomatica.org network.

In Catalonia also, as national operators would not provide connectivity in mountainous zones of the Pyrenees, or in the hills of the Osona region, a self organised WiFi culture developed, and a number of villages came together from 2004 onward to start a self-managed citizens' network: Guifi.net.This network expanded incrementally over the Iberic peninsula, et even connected with other countries, especially in South America. As I write there are 34 630 active interconnection nodes, of the 58 000 that have been set up.

These nodes all work with ultra small routers available of the shelf for 30€ or even less, which use very little electricity, something between 3W and 10W, sometimes more, depending on capacity. Some of them are solar-powered. Internet at your fingertips with just a small antenna on a rooftop, and a router in the attic or the staircase. Once the equipment is connected the set up is through a simple webpage, everybody can do it. The network adjusts seamlessly to new nodes coming up, or to old ones disapearing.

The software used to be starkly experimental at first, but by now it has been seriously upgraded, just like all F/OSS. This thanks to the contribution of scores of developers banding together on a Linux distro specifically intended for the devolpement of this type of autonomous and resilient Internet networks. It goes under the name of Cloudy [2]. It links all the nodes without any need for a centralised server. In addition to classic communication protocols, the Guifi community has also put in place mail servers, IP telephony, database services, instant messaging systems, webradio, webtelevision, and video-conferences set-ups. This way the community created a truly autonomous, self-managed and resilient Internet, but one which is also connected to the 'big Internet'. And this is exactly where one realises the political and technological significance of such an approach in the context of the challenging years that await us.

The 'big Internet' itself is a network slowly losing its resilience. It is subjected to extremely strong political and technological forces which are in the hands of the planet's most powerful actors. Internet's frailness in on the rise both in technical terms, due to its massive energy needs, but also politically. President Trump's attacks on net neutrality are a boon to many a regime. Undemocratic governements, like China's, have erected digital walls preventing the free circulation of ideas and knowledge. There are a lot of economic, political, military or religious actors who dream of putting an end to the techno-anarchism that has been prevailing on the Internet from its origins. Internet as we still know it gives equal access to any human individual, indiferent whether sHe belongs to a GAFAM type of company or is a simple farmer in Bangladesh going online in an Internet cafe. But as governments have shut down access to the Internet for hours or even days on end, as happened during the 'Arab Spring' , avaibility of network connection becomes an crucial geo-political criterion, a basic necessity of life, and an absolute prerequisite for real democracy.

To this context, one should add the effects of the climate crisis, and the depletion of resources. No one can tell what the consequences will be of a (economic) crash on the telecommunication infrastructure and the avaibility of networks. If the Internet would come down, whatever the cause or the duration - and history shows that it has almost happened a number of times – self-managed network like Guifi or Freifunk will still be able to maintain local and regional communications, and provide for essential services in times of crisis, as the only thing a node needs to stay alife is that the small router or SBC (single board computer) powering them keeps being fed with the few Watts of electricity it consumes.

The resilience we need to set up and achieve to weather the coming years will necessarily involve initiatives like Guifi, Freifunk or Rhizomatica: decentralized bottom up structures, started by citizens, managed (and owned) by citizens, developed and improved by citizens, which are low-cost, low energy, resilient by virtue of a mesh network format, resistent to any form of technological, economic, or political forms of censorship. And to bring this about, there is no need to reinvent the wheel as everything exists already, it just requires adaptation to the specific, local context.

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[1] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Réseaux_sans_fil_communautaires
[2] http://cloudy.community/

Nice, March 12, 2018 (written by JNM, & translated by yrs truly)








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