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Ear to the Ground

‘Mesh’ Your Way to a Safer Internet

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Posted on Aug 22, 2013
Carolyn P Speranza (CC BY 2.0)

Alternate Internet services that cost little and can protect against government surveillance are popping up in places where digital activists are building networks with rooftop Wi-Fi antennas.

Clive Thompson reports in Mother Jones:

It’s actually faster than the Net we pay for: Data travels through the mesh at no less than 14 megabits a second, and up to 150 Mbs a second, about 30 times faster than the commercial pipeline I get at home. [Athenian mesh architect and user Joseph] Bonicioli and the others can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet. And it’s a pretty big group of people: Their Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network has more than 1,000 members, from Athens proper to nearby islands. Anyone can join for free by installing some equipment.

The networks are made possible by what’s known as the “last mile”—connections between the computer in your home and the physical array of fiber optic Internet, telephone and TV cables that make up the backbone of the Internet. That’s where commercial Internet service providers come in, and where mesh pioneers create their own access.

Benefits of meshed networks are cultural as well as practical. “It changes attitudes,” Bonicioli says. “People start sharing a lot. They start getting to know someone next door—they find the same interests; they find someone to go out and talk with.” Furthermore, enclosed networks are virtually inaccessible to government snoopers. “When you run your own network,” Bonicioli explains, “nobody can shut it down.”

Some mesh networks are huge. The Spanish network Guifi is the world’s largest mesh, with more than 21,000 members. And they’re almost always cheap. In Kansas City, the Free Network Foundation is wiring neighborhoods where the average household income is $10,000 per year. “When people see the price they get from the mesh,” FNF cofounder Isaac Wilder says, “they’re like, ‘Ten bucks a month? Oh, shit, I’ll pay that!’”

Mesh networks promise digital solutions to political problems as well. Then-President Hosni Mubarak famously ordered state-controlled ISPs to shut down Egypt’s Internet for days. And in China, the “Great Firewall” prevents citizens from accessing pro-democracy sites. In countries where the authorities want to suppress political opposition, these networks offer a way for dissidents to communicate with one another.

Mesh Wi-Fi ranges are modest at present. Communication is mostly limited to within neighborhoods or cities, but there are means of extending reach, including high-floating balloons and mobile hot spots. The holy grail, of course, is creating a global network.

On a purely technical level, mesh advocates say it’s super hard, but not impossible. First, you’d build as many local mesh networks as you can, and then you’d connect them together. Long-distance “hops” are tricky, but community meshes already use special wifi antennas—sometimes “cantennas” made out of Pringles-type containers—to join far-flung neighborhoods. Down in Argentina, meshers have shot signals up to 10 miles to bring together remote villages; in Greece, Bonicioli says they’ve connected towns as far as 60 miles apart. For bigger leaps, there are even more colorful ideas: Float a balloon 60,000 feet in the air, attach a wifi repeater, and you could bounce a signal between two cities separated by hundreds of miles. It sounds nuts, but Google actually pulled it off this past summer, when its Project Loon sent a flotilla of balloons over New Zealand to blanket the rural countryside with wireless connections. There are even DIY satellites: Home-brewed “cubesats” have already been put into orbit by university researchers for less than $100,000 each. That’s hardly chump change, but it’s well within, say, Kickstarter range.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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