Sean McIntyre · designing technology to create art

Do-It-Yourself Wireless

This entry is cross-posted between my personal blog and the ITP thesis blog. It was written as a research findings piece to accompany my graduate thesis project, a mesh network in Brooklyn.

There are a few networks in the DIY network community that are very well-regarded. There's Freifunk in Germany, Funkfeuer in Austria, Athens Metropolitan Wireless Network in Greece, and, the most well-regarded of them all, guifi.net in Catalonia.

Success in Spain

guifi.net

Guifi.net was covered extensively in this month's newsletter entitled "Why Have a Network in the First Place?" produced by The COOK Report on Internet Protocol. The newsletter is a monthly industry publication put out by Gordon Cook, a global telecommunications reporter and critic who covers global Internet affairs that typically involve government and business. The piece chronicles the method, philosophy, growth, impetus, and economics of guifi.net.

The network was started outside of Barcelona in the Catalonian countryside. Ramon Roca, whose interview is largely the content of the piece, recounts the early 2000s and his need of a broadband Internet connection in order to feasibly do his work as an employee of Oracle from home, as well as to partake in his computer hobbies. His only option at the time was to travel to Barcelona, which was over an hour away.

In the early days of guifi.net, the Roca and his guifi.net friends focused on interconnecting the local neighborhood with wireless connections. He relied on making connections with other like-minded geeks, offering his assistance as much as possible to foster a community-led effort of interconnectivity. Later, he found it important to make friends with local passionate municipal officials and Roman Catholic bishops who, despite the network being non-secular, found the project good for the community. Guifi.net was given free access to high vantage points on church steeples to mount networking equipment and further their wireless reach.

In the present day, guifi.net has scaled to a point where they are able to pool community resources to lay fiberoptic network cable throughout the countryside to connect households to the Internet with a gigabit connection. This demand-driven model ensures that connectivity happens where it is desired. Most of what the enduser pays is a one-time equipment and setup fee, and a competitive monthly fee to an ISP that connects them to the Internet via the guifi.net network.

Instead of phrasing guifi.net as "fiber to the home", implying that the home is the last and least important connection, they brand the network as "fiber from the farm" or "bottom-up broadband", implying those connections are the most important components of the network.

In his interview, Roca outlines an argument as to why the major Spanish telecommunications provider, Telefonica, has no economic interest in expanding broadband access to the Catalonian countryside and the gross inefficiencies of municipal incentive-based models to spur private development. Telefonica, once the Spanish public telecommunications monopoly, was sold off over a decade ago, "given" to one of the then prime ministers' friends and has remained closely tied to the ruling elite. The goal of the company no longer is to provide telecommunications to the people, but to accomplish fiduciary duty and maximize shareholder value. Because of this, the success and rise of competition by guifi.net has not been publicly celebrated in Spain, however it has been embraced as a success by the European Union in programs that actively encourage community-based innovation.

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The economic model that Telefonica employs as a private company (image from The COOK Report)

Roca is very passionate and deliberate about how the network is managed and used. The guifi.net network was created as a commons, meaning "a resource that is owned in common or shared between or among communities"; forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries are all examples of commons. The users of the network must agree to the service-level agreement to allow "open peering", which guarantees free transit through the network and, in short, upholds the spirit of the commons. The organization, guifi.net, is a non-profit and the founding members of guifi.net are the board members, which forbids them to be paid by the organization according to Spanish law. It also appears that they have a legal structure that is more protected against aggressive takeover tactics from private for-profit companies, like Telefonica.

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The economic model of guifi.net (image from The COOK Report)

The lack of innovation and expansion, the need for connectivity at a municipal level, and the present-day reduced cost of networking equipment have led to the success of guifi.net.

Back to America

There are parallels between American network duopoly of Comcast and Time Warner and Spain and Telefonica. It's unclear from the piece at what point guifi.net transitioned from solely connecting people locally and turned into a project that connected people to the Internet. Certainly guifi.net is a noble project and competition in New York City for Internet connectivity does not properly exist, but creating an alternative ISP is well beyond the scope of my thesis. Creating a network that is sufficiently reliable for residents to eventually receive Internet access from an ISP, however, is something that can certainly be strived for. Indeed, perhaps this is how this project can be part of the disruption in the American telecommunications industry that Susan Crawford in her book Captive Audience is calling for.

In the meantime, and in my original interest-space, my thesis will focus on the end user experience on local networks, specifically with the network I will create in Bushwick. The leaders in the community wireless movement in America, such as the Free Network Foundation, the Open Technology Initiative, Allied Media Projects, and the Project Byzantium, all focus on hardware, firmware, digital divide, and disaster scenarios. The missing component, however, is the day-to-day application. What can local networks do for us that the Internet can't?

Answering this question and the journey to it, I believe, is a key piece to popularizing community networks so they gain a critical mass of users for alternative ISPs to make economic sense. Broadband access in cities is not an immediate issue unlike rural areas. Cities, however, are full of early adopters of new technology who could be the incentivized through a novel user experience and applications to try the network and help build out the inexpensive wireless network. Then, creating a replicable stack of software for local networks could help other independent networks across North America gain traction in a way that European networks have.

What Brooklyn Has

In the same way that Roca was a member of local "geeks" who wanted to start guifi.net, there is a talented set of geeks who are willing and able to start a new alternative network in Brooklyn.

For builders of the network, there is Glen Duncan, HAM operator and founder of NYC Meshnet, a movement of hobbyists and professionals who aim to create a decentralized network across New York City. There is Sean Auriti from Alpha One Labs who hosts the NYC Meshnet meetup in the A1 hackerspace.

From the art and technology creative applications perspective, there's Dan Phiffer who created Occupy.here, a decentralized message board hosted on network router access points across New York City. There's Sarah Grant who is creating local applications for businesses. There's Mark Krawczuk who created the L Train Notwork to connect commuters on the L train with Brooklyn artists, like writer Robin Grearson who saw the L Train Notwork as an interesting new medium to present her work.

From the social justice perspective, there is the Red Hook Initiative whose efforts, led by Tony Schloss and Jonathan Baldwin, created a wireless network in Red Hook to provide local services to document stop and frisk procedures in the neighborhood. With Hurricane Sandy, the network was repurposed to provide free Internet access to the residents of Red Hook as all of the utilities were not restored in the neighborhood until nearly a month later. Work done by Occupy Sandy in the Rockaways could also include network projects in the future.

Brooklyn has a unique mix of communities focused on creativity and expression through arts, technology, and social justice. Indeed, perhaps this is the proper place to create the local applications that I posited are very important for alternative networks to grow. Working with these people will be key to creating a successful movement.

Progress

As for my progress, I've determined that making connections with people who are interested in hosting network nodes will be the best thing I can do right now. Building out the network as quickly as I can is the next best move. I am well-positioned on both of those fronts. With the network built, I can start testing applications and attract people to it so they can try their applications on it using a call for proposals method via 319 Scholes. The big unveil of the network, besides the presentation of my thesis, will be at Bushwick Open Studios.

The network I create with my thesis will be licensed with the same network commons stipulations that guifi.net came with. This idea is rather utopian, but my feeling is that it will be a welcome change to the target audience of the Bushwick network. The Free Network Foundation is developing a "network compact" that mirrors the guifi.net service license agreement that I will adopt and enforce.

The conversation of the network commons made me wonder what the application equivalent of the commons is. The answer for the global scale so far appears to be Wikipedia and Reddit, websites that are made up of entirely community submitted content. OurGoods, meanwhile, is a service for connecting people who can help each other with their wants and needs, typically a local connection. EveryBlock was a local news website that aggregated local news stories and public announcements for their readers. EveryBlock was shuttered this past week by its parent company, NBC, but I will miss the service and so will others.

Roca mentioned in his interview that a key to their success with clients was to provide "a quick win for local residents in a short time." The repercussions of a long wait for connection was discouragement amongst the community members. The quick timeframe of the thesis forces this project to be created rapidly.

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