Mesh Networks And City Wireless Will Transform The Internet
Will internet access be controlled and monopolized by a handful of global internet access providers? Can governments prevent access to certain sites? Perhaps there is an alternative in the making.
Hundreds of municipalities are recognizing that facilitating internet access is part of their responsibility towards citizens, and they are planning to bypass traditional internet access providers, opening access to the net in a more direct way. According to an article of DMeurope.com, over 400 cities world wide are currently planning to deploy broadband networks in their areas, and 2006 should see a doubling of the numbers. Rome, along with New York, San Francisco and Paris, is among the major cities planning to provide citizens and visitors with widespread internet access, choosing between fibre or wireless broadband networks using wi-fi hotspots, mesh networks or pre-WiMAX technology.
Mesh networks are a natural candidate for constructing a resilient, locally networked access to communication infrastructure. The Times in the UK has an article that explains how New Orleans could have profited from such a network to facilitate hurricane relief and how some of the most unlikely places are linking up with the internet by installing networks of little radio boxes that start communicating with each other, as soon as they find peers within reach, forming an autonomous network.
Mesh networks are rugged and self-configuring. They are normally established by municipalities, by upstart internet providers or by co-operatives of users. Those linked in can communicate directly with each other and also access the larger internet, normally through a leased-line access point that is shared by the network's users. Some networks allow users to contribute by sharing unused access bandwidth with others.
Not only will local networks allow more easy access to the main information pipeline, on which we depend more and more, but their spreading will proof the internet itself against catastrophic occurrences. An internet braced by a myriad of local peer-to-peer networks will be less influenced by either catastrophic disruptions or the more subtle commercial decisions and content restrictions operated by today's access providers, as well as government censorship and military intrusions.
One could even imagine a scenario where the information that now sits on servers is redundantly backed up - stored on a myriad of personal computers that are linked up with each other through P2P networks - eventually forming a second tier of the net, one that could survive the most harsh conditions life may confront us with. Actually, some people have been working on what I was envisioning here. Just found out (November 2006) that the Freenet has been under development for years. It is still in its infancy, and being developed on a shoestring, but work is progressing. If you're interested, you might want to pitch in helping with testing, development, or even a donation.
Anyway, here is the Times article on mesh networks...
- - -
By Holden Frith
An unusual way of connecting computers could deliver the benefits of the internet to people who have previously been cut off
An engineer installs a MeshBox in a remote Bolivian town
Fans of the internet are fond of describing it as an engine of freedom, opportunity and wealth creation. In many ways they are right: the internet can be a limitless classroom for those bypassed by formal education, and a marketplace and forum for people otherwise excluded from economic or political life.
The problem is that the people who could benefit most are the least likely to be connected. The digital divide between rich and poor prevents the benefits flowing to disadvantaged Britons, as well as the vast majority in the developing world, guaranteeing that familiar inequalities persist in the virtual world.
One technology that promises to help bridge the divide both at home and abroad is wireless mesh networking. In basic terms, the mesh provides an alternative to established methods of linking computers together and connecting them to the internet. In practice, it can be used to build large networks far more quickly and cheaply than has previously been possible.
As a result, wireless networks are viable in unexpected places. New Orleans, still without a phone service after Hurricane Katrina, recently began building a free, citywide network using mesh technology, while the whole of Macedonia is now one big wireless hotspot. Networks are also providing web connections to people in the parts of the UK untouched by phone-based broadband, as well as in developing countries that have never had effective telephone networks.
The British company LocustWorld is a pioneer within this growing market. Its co-founder, Richard Lander, explains how meshes differ from other networks. Instead of having a central server which determines how data passes between computers, he says, the mesh creates a network of equals, in which individual computers find the best way to communicate with each other.
"Lots of intelligent devices all fit together to form a resilient network, and the more devices there are on a network, the more routes there are through it," Mr Lander says. "You can continue to grow it organically, piece by piece, and it will organise itself.
Data finds its way through the network in much the same way that we find our way around a city. "You don’t have a map of every route in the country in your head," he says. "You store the routes around where you live or work, or the routes you use most often. If you need to find a street in London you buy a London A to Z, or ask directions on the way."
At the heart of the network is the MeshBox, a wireless access point and router contained in a box about the size of a video recorder. A single box will provide internet access to anyone within range, but a network of several of these nodes can cover large areas as the signal leaps from box to box, spreading from each as it goes.
The ad hoc nature of the mesh makes it easy to start small and expand where necessary, without the complex reprogramming involved with adding to a traditional, top-down network. As the mesh becomes more dense its stability increases due to the greater number of potential connections: if one node fails then the network will direct data through an alternative route. Two separate meshes can even merge into a single network if they grow to the point of overlapping.
They are also relatively cheap to set up. Unlike phone or cable-based internet systems, mesh networks require minimal physical infrastructure and can be installed quickly, cheaply and without extensive training.
In mountainous Bolivia, LocustWorld worked with the International Institute for Communication and local technicians to install a two-square-mile mesh in the town of Sopachuy. The remote town had only about a dozen phone lines for a population of 1,500, but in less than a day and for a few thousand pounds, the team built a network capable of providing internet and telephone services to most of the town.
The same qualities make mesh networks attractive to small internet service providers aiming to fill the UK’s broadband blackspots. Speednet Scotland uses a mesh network to provide wireless broadband access to the area surrounding Troon, Ayreshire, where many telephone exchanges were unable to support broadband until recently.
The company was set up in 2004 and now has 150 customers, each paying either £15.99 per month for a 750Kbps connection, or £24.99 per month for 1.5Mbps. This is slightly more than they would pay for telephone-based broadband, but mesh customers don’t have to pay for a BT line, a prerequisite for most other services. Speednet Scotland also lets users connect their home phone to the mesh instead of the standard phone network, and for a monthly fee of £5 offers unlimited calls to landlines in the UK and 33 other countries.
Although the BT exchanges in the area have now been upgraded to support broadband, Speednet Scotland has managed to keep all its customers. The company’s founder, Brian Mcilwraith, explains that his three MeshBoxes, each of which cost £250, can outperform the established telecoms infrastructure. "We can get a better service through the internet than BT can," he says. "The copper lines have been in the ground for a number of years and they’re not always up to standard, especially in our rural communities."
Mesh networks have long been an area where small companies can compete with the big boys, but with growing interest – and investment – from technology giants such as Cisco and Intel, the market may soon be a lot more crowded. At LocustWorld, Mr Lander is not put off by the competition. "It’s not a question of one company replacing another," he says. "Cisco’s advertising is paying dividends for LocustWorld, raising interest in people who never would have thought of using a mesh."
The growth of meshing will undoubtedly present new challenges. One obstacle is regulation, both in the developing world, where bureaucracy can prove insurmountable, and the developed world, where telecoms companies are strongly lobbying against citywide mesh networks that threaten their business. Wireless security will also be a concern for some, although proponents of the technology argue that an encrypted mesh provides more comprehensive protection than the unencrypted cable network that most people rely on.
As with other relatively new the issue of standards and compatibility may also take some time to settle down, and as more companies become involved there is a risk that a proliferation of competing, incompatible standards could lead to frustration. Mesh remains an emerging technology, but with increasing numbers of villages, towns and cities throughout the world opting to install meshes, it is certainly emerging fast.
Prague Seeks City-wide Free Internet Zone
January 2006 By Katya Zapletnyuk
PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The government here wants to allocate $4.1 million to create a free wireless network citywide, which has the country's largest telecom providers crying foul.
How the telcos and cablecos plan to strangle the citizens' Internet
Jeff Chester, who has been in the media analysis and activism field for some time, has written a chilling article for the Nation about the possible end of the Internet as a medium where amateurs and citizens are free to create news media, organize political action, start companies from their dormitory rooms...
The End of the Internet?
by JEFF CHESTER
[The Nation - February 1, 2006]
Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.
Software-defined radio could unify wireless world
Ireland's communications regulator Comreg has issued the licence for publicly testing a "software-defined radio" device, which has been developed by researchers at the Centre for Telecommunications Value-Chain Research (CTVR) in Dublin. The device can impersonate a multitude of different wireless devices since it uses reconfigurable software to carry out the tasks normally performed by static hardware...
Skype Invests In Free Hotspots
Monday, 6 February 2006
Internet phone company Skype are helping to provide free WiFi access around the world by investing in FON, a software application which turns your router into a secure hotspot. Skype invested a small but unspecified amount in the FON community, which is designed to let people share their internet connection with other FON users. Once someone registers the free software, and becomes a 'Fonero', FON provides maps of where the new hotspot is located. The idea being that once you share your connection you can then use others anywhere in the world.
MIT and City Collaborate To Provide Free Wireless
A collaboration with MIT researchers may provide Cambridge with a free, city-wide, wireless internet service as early as late summer. The project will rely on a mesh networking technology that allows individual computers to become new access points, projecting the reach of the network beyond its original antennas. The main goal of the project is to provide internet access to Cantabrigians who live in public housing, said Cambridge Chief Information Officer Mary P. Hart, though the resulting infrastructure will have a far wider benefit for city residents.
Open Source Telecom: Disruptive Technology?
Om Malik reports about Vayatta's new Open Source software powered network router. Vyatta's router is about to go into beta release, and it will likely hit the market this (2006) summer. The machine runs on two Intel chips, but far more noteworthy is its software, known as XORP, or extensible open router platform. The versatile open-source application can direct data traffic for a giant corporation as easily as it can manage a home Wi-Fi network.
Wireless World: Clandestine communications
New wireless technologies being developed by a secretive government agency in collaboration with private contractors may dramatically improve communications for homeland defense among federal, state and local officials, experts tell United Press International's Wireless World.
Wi-fi pioneers offer cheap router
BBC, 27 June 2006 - A Spanish firm is to sell subsidised routers as part of a plan to turn domestic wi-fi networks into public hotspots. Fon will sell wi-fi routers, which allow people to surf the net wirelessly, for $5 (£2.75). The company, which has financial backing from Google and Skype, aims to create public wi-fi networks street by street across the US and Europe.
A Most Disruptive Technology
The discription of advanced mesh networks to provide broad band to all users of an area, while commercially oriented, is nevertheless interesting as it touches on the many uses such broadband access would offer to us. What is not touched upon are the possible health implications of a generalized roll-out of blanket covering a whole area with gigahertz waves providing that access."The radios themselves are quite advanced having been redesigned into a silicon chip with total digital control. We refer to this as a Software Configureable Radio. For the engineering types, the access points are then capable of interfacing with all the MAC (Media Access Control) layers of the network.
The radios are placed three to a mini PCI board and plugged into the processor board. The radios are fully programmable which means that, as an example, the channels and center frequencies can be changed in milliseconds to avoid interfering signals or tuning all radios to the Public Safety frequency. While we currently use public spectrum wi-fi channels (802.11) and a public safety band, there is no reason in principle we could not switch one or more of the radios if another frequency (say Wi-Max, if they ever get it figured out) has enough demand.
In the current configuration, we will provide one channel for public safety staff (police, fire and emergency) to be able to communicate with each other. In a real emergency, one or more of the public channels could be instantaneously switched to the public safety frequency, providing more back up.
The access points come with a two to three hour back up battery supply in case the access point loses power. As an option, one can put a two or three day battery back-up into each AP, making sure they stay up during an emergency or when there is a total power outage. And the APs are smart enough to notify the system when they are having problems. If an AP goes down, the system automatically reconfigures itself.
The entire system can be run from a laptop. You can see every node, connection and radio. The network itself is a very smart system. Of course, there is tremendous security built into the system, as the chief designer started out from a public safety perspective where security was paramount. So, nobody is going to be able to browse your computer through the system. "
posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Monday January 30 2006
updated on Sunday November 21 2010
URL of this article:
Cosmic Internet - The Universe as your 'provider'
As we struggle with electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and other communications applications, a new development is quietly making its way into reality. Hartmut Mueller and his Leonard Euler Space-Energy-Research Institute are developing a communication technology that is not based on pushing out and receiving signals carried by electromagnetic radiation. Mueller has pioneered a method of transmitting information through the medium of gravitation. Standing waves in logarithmic space, for those... [read more]
February 13, 2004 - Sepp Hasslberger
Science Commons: Open The Flow Of Scientific Information
Creative Commons has become a modern-day alternative to copyright which we inherited from pre-computer and pre-internet times. Ubiquitous copyright has become an obstacle to sharing and utilizing the immense amounts of information now at our fingertips. The idea is to form a "commons", that is, a freely accessible body of facts and ideas where barriers to the exchange and use of information have been removed or at least lowered from... [read more]
February 21, 2005 - Sepp Hasslberger
Corporate Control of Media - Trash Your Television
The media, all those channels that are supposed to give us the information we need to understand what's happening, have been taken over and bent to a corporate agenda. In a certain sense that means they have betrayed the trust of their readers, listeners, viewers. This will either have to drastically change, or people are going to turn to other sources for obtaining their information. Yes, this is a pretty... [read more]
February 22, 2004 - Sepp Hasslberger
The Cell Phone Experiment: Is Mobile Communication Worth The Risk?
Undoubtedly mobile phones and wireless broadband are immensely useful, but there is a persistent question: what are the risks of using these technologies? Many of us asking the "risk" question are - alas - not necessarily informed or even willing to consider the benefits of networking, and those planning the digital and mobile revolution have hardly heard about the risks. Providers are reluctant to discuss the health implications of the... [read more]
December 14, 2005 - Sepp Hasslberger