Free Networks Movement

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The Free Networks Movement wants to build a network infrastructure based on open standards that is built and controlled by civil society itself.

See also: Wireless Commons


Short Description

From Armin Medosch at http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength

"In industrial societies, infrastructure is traditionally the domain of the state and of large companies. Consume wanted to show that this does not have to be the case. "You can also take a grassroots, bottom-up approach, almost literally, on every level." (Stevens 2003) Unlike mobile phone networks, for example, which are centrally planned, built, administered and operated with the aim of maximizing profit, Free Networks are based on the model of Network Commons - a special form of the "Digital Commons" which came to occupy a central position in recent discussions on intellectual property (Grassmuck 2002). The use of the term "Network Commons" underlines the fact that what is at stake here is not just technical networks as carriers of information but also the creation and improvement of options for human action. For the Network Commons to come into existence, a series of conditions must be given.

Probably the most important condition is the existence of open standards. Internet communications are based on the Internet protocols TCP/IP. Although their development was originally commissioned by the U.S. military, the results of this work were made available to the public. On the basis of this tradition, all Internet protocols are free and publicly accessible.10 Of similar importance is the existence of Free Software and the licensing system that protects it, the General Public Licence (GPL)11. Thanks to the viral character of the GPL, there is a growing pool of Free Software, from the GNU/Linux operating system to a wide range of network services through to applications. Most key Internet functions can be provided without needing to use proprietary software. The third condition is a free transmission medium. Wireless networks based on the WLAN standard exploit a frequency regulation loophole, the ISM band (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) which can be used without a license. And finally, Free Networks depend crucially on social motivation and connection protocols. For something to be called a network at all, there must be more than one node, i.e. connections must be established. This process involves finding partners willing to link up and then working with them to build a network. The necessary rules are established via processes based on the principle of self-organization. The Network Commons draws on the desire to create a network based on free cooperation and self-made rules. It was to provide a framework for making such rules that the Pico-Peering Agreement was developed.

In the long term, networks motivated by a collective need for a place of free, self-determined communication may become necessary in order to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the media on the Internet. Besides the GPL and the GNU Documentation Licence, other copyleft licenses have now been developed to protect not only programs but also individual units of content - images, texts, pieces of music. A growing number of authors are now using such licenses to allow public use of their creative output. To secure this freedom in the long term, there is also a need for free or self-determined network infrastructures. According to Eben Moglen (2003), interrelations between Open Source, Open Hardware and Free Networks are the main guarantors of this freedom, of its survival and its extension - an insight that is becoming increasingly significant." (http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength)

Long Description

By Armin Medosch at http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/WirelessUtopia

"Over the last few years loosely connected groups all over the world have started to build free networks, networks which are owned and maintained by their users and are largely free of state and corporate influence. This fledgling free network movement is not one coherent group, campaign or strategy, but another one of those multitudes, a free association of individuals who work together for a common goal under a loose umbrella of a few principles and with a lot of enthusiasm. Free networks try to build large-scale networks following a bottom-up grassroots approach by using DIY technology (homemade antennas, second hand hardware, free software) and suggesting decentral self-organization as preferred organizational model. There is no single entity that plans and builds the network. Instead groups promote the suggestion that people share bandwidth and organically grow a network by (wirelessly) connecting their local nodes.

This can be achieved with a number of technologies but recently the technology of choice became 802.11, a family of wireless Ethernet standards developed by the IEEE, which is incorporated in many mass market networking products such as WLAN network cards and chipsets. Hardware prices have fallen dramatically over the last few years thanks to the commercial boom in wireless (powered by Apple Airport and Intel Centrino, among other players). Radio Networking brings together two powerful technologies, innovative wireless transmission technologies such as spread spectrum and computer networking technology. 802.11 is based on open standards which is an important advantage for the free network movement. It means that free software can run on most proprietary hardware platforms as long as the protocol has been properly implemented. It also works well with embedded Linux chips and with older computers running some Unix version. Networking across different platforms but based on open standards has been the success formula of the Internet, a story repeating itself with 802.11.

The 802.11 technology was originally considered a substitute for cable based local networks in homes and offices. Wireless access points or hotspots create a Local Area Network (LAN) which can be accessed by any device within range with an 802.11 radio card or chipset; usually an access point also provides or is connected to a gateway to the internet. This type of node (access point plus gateway) is sitting at the center of a star topology; it is the master of all communications in the local net, while connecting to the next higher level on the internet, for example via an ADSL connection. Such a set-up is called a hotspot in the commercial world.

The vision of Free Networks as expressed by Consume, London, one of the ideologically most influential groups, is to apply the peer-to-peer principle known from file sharing networks to the underlying physical material layer of network communications. Consume proposed in 2000 that a wireless 'meshed network' should be built, a highly distributed network where each node is connected to many other nodes and no node is in a central or privileged position. The owners of nodes are legally independent from each other and arrange the traffic of data across the net by following the minimal requirements of the Pico Peering Agreement - a framework for owners of nodes to establish connections and formulate the rules that govern them.

The WLAN standard 802.11b has two modes, the infrastructural mode (for Access Points) and the ad-hoc mode (also called peer-to-peer or computer-to-computer mode, depending on hardware/software vendor). When a wireless network is set-up in the latter way, each node can connect to each other node as long as they are within range of their radio signals. Since there is no privileged place in the network, each node carries out functions of switching data packets around, acting as a router and Internet gateway. Since every node shares this task of switching packets around, the overlapping radio coverage of all nodes together forms a single wireless cloud. Computers located within this cloud can communicate with high data rates while the cloud is connected at its edges at a number of points with the Internet. 'Unwiring' the edges of the commercial Internet, owners/users in a free network cloud are reclaiming their right to self-define how they do their telecommunication.

The Consume idea of a large free data cloud over London has not succeeded (yet). Currently, what we have got is hundreds of wireless community networks in the UK and thousands more worldwide. Most of them operate on a local scale, forming little wireless clusters where people can at last share files, play games or watch videos without any outside interference. At the pragmatic end of the argument those networks allow to share the cost of bandwidth efficiently between a greater number of users. At the visionary end this should only be the beginning. The small free network islands should grow together and 'unwire' ever-growing parts of a city, a region, a country, the world. By becoming bigger, the community networks could gain leverage in peering negotiations with commercial bandwidth providers and get cheaper access to global networks. In the long-term bandwidth might become free or reasonably cheap. And, more importantly, free networking might completely change the way telecommunication is provided.

Meshed networking - not as the description of a network topology but as a specific technology - has generated a kind of geeky buzz around 'mobile ad-hoc networking'. Bleeding edge mobile ad-hoc networking protocols are seen as the key to a bottom-up wireless utopia. If ad-hoc network technology gets implemented in mass-market mobile devices (handsets, PDAs), everybody who carries such a device becomes a walking personal telco. Dynamic, self-healing routing software and computer controlled radio would always find the nearest working node within range and use it to pass on information. If this approach gets enough support it could in the end lead to a world without telecommunications providers and the people would truly become the network. The free network paradigm and the mobile broadband paradigm as proposed by the mobile telcos are at opposing ends of the spectrum in regard to all major factors - the network topology, the political economy, their regulation and the social context: they could not be more different. For instance, free networks don't 'meter' traffic, they usually don't measure the volume of data exchanged because the network is built on mutual consent of allowing 'free transit'. Mobile phone networks meter just about everything, the volume of data, the time spent online, the location, calls made and received, etc. Mobile phone networks have the classic star network topology inherited from the age of monopoly telcos. The switching stations at the centres of connections have total control over every aspect of the network. The old way of thinking in the Post Telephone and Telegraph (PTT's) offices' way which is still the mobile network owners' credo reduces users of a network to being consumers. There is a network, which is theirs, because they own and maintain it, and users are being sold access to this network. Probably deep down inside they even think that they are generous letting anybody use their network. The consumer is considered as a leaf at the thin end of the tree structure of the network, as someone who mainly wants to download stuff.

In the free network scenario this is radically turned around. The user is not considered a dead end street, someone just sucking away somebody elses bandwidth, but is seen as a node that is fully integrated in the network and contributes to the value of the network as a bandwidth and content provider. Every connection is two-way and symmetrical, which means that the data rates for uploading and downloading are the same. The free network movement says that if we do things the right way we could create abundance - a maximum of bandwidth available at a minimum of price; scarcity of bandwidth is, according to some activists, a fiction upheld by the industry not to let their markets collapse.

One main reason why free networks could be so successful is that they operate in a band of the spectrum, which is license exempt in most industrialized countries. That means that certain frequencies can be used without needing to ask the authorities. The success of spectrum deregulation of the frequencies used by 802.11 inspired an 'open spectrum' movement which demands that more parts of the spectrum become license exempt. New software controlled radio technology (spread spectrum, ultra-wideband) will allow micro-regulation to happen on a local scale without the strong arm of the government being needed, according to open spectrum activists. The problem of interference that dogged radio in the 1920ies can be avoided with those new techniques and therefore we should completely rethink the way spectrum is regulated. "

More Information

  1. The Free Wavelength essay by Armin Medosch at http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength focuses on the recent history of the movement, after the impetus of the Consume experiment in London
  2. Not Just Another Wireless Utopia, at http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/WirelessUtopia, gives more long-term historical and philosophical background.

See our entry on the Wireless Commons movement and the Consume experiment.