If you're reading this, you're more than likely paying for access to the Internet. The Internet itself is an elusive concept: It's free, but as a consumer we are forced to pay for access it.
But what if that wasn’t the case?
A project headed by the Open Technology Institute called the Commotion Wireless Project is challenging that basic assumption of connectivity. It provides a do-it-yourself template to creating your own wireless mesh network.
In a sense, it works like a network in an office environment. You can dial someone down the hall or share files with your peers from across the building without ever having to connect to an outside server. The network is entirely self-contained.
“We are doing the same thing wirelessly. But instead of your office, it’s your community, it’s your neighborhood… it’s an entire geographical region,” Sascha Meinrath, director of the project, told Fusion.
How a wireless mesh network looks throughout a neighborhood. Credit: Commotion
Instead of sharing your printer, residents might be able to share vital information through text, shared files, or free phone calls. Just last month, the company released its Commotion Construction Kit, a step-by-step guide to forming your own network. Essentially, users can turn their Wi-fi enabled devices or routers into peer-to-peer connection.
At least one Commotion project has already had some early success with connecting neighborhoods in a time of need. During the dark days after Hurricane Sandy in New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood stayed connected to one another through such a network, enabling residents to report flooding and other needs.
But much of Commotion’s focus has been on providing the infrastructure for oppressed countries around the world. “[To] lower the risk for those engaged in democratic organizing and political advocacy. [This tool] helps for the free expression of ideas, thoughts, and assembly,” explains Meinrath.
Because the networks are not centralized around one hub like traditional internet service providers, the content is much harder for these governments to watch, and it sidesteps attempts to censor.
The difference between a centralized network and a mesh network. Credit: Commotion
“I can’t talk about specific implementations,” he says. “What I can tell you is that anytime in the news you hear about some hotspots somewhere on the planet, we’re being contacted by people on the ground in those locations.”
That makes technologies like these dangerous in countries like Cuba, China, and North Korea, who limit access to websites and censor liberally. In return, it also makes the idea very appealing to an American public who is growing more and more impatient with NSA scandals, and with using the services of companies who have played a role in the data gathering process.
Using a wireless mesh network that you set up yourself might just be the solution to those who want to stay connected, but get themselves off big brother’s grid.
But the technology also presents a threat to the business model of traditional internet service providers, should the networks build to scale, which Meinrath is positive will happen. “Tech giants will have to shift their business model,” he says. “The same way AT&T didn’t go out of business when the internet came around… I think you don’t stop innovation because it disrupts existing business models.”
With traditional internet providers pushing to end net neutrality, and virtually every major internet provider and major online server being involved to some degree in the ongoing NSA scandals, this technology might find fertile ground for a variety of reasons.
“I would love to see tens of thousands of networks all around the globe that are built by local communities, owned by local communities, to serve local communities,” Meinrath envisions.
Now that sounds like a revolution. Internet 2.0, to be exact.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.