Community Wireless Networking as a Culture and Economics of Autonomy

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* Essay: Software Freedom and The Global Commons: Community Wireless Networking as a Culture and Economics of Autonomy. Magnus Lawrie. 12th January 2011



"The existence of CWNs raises questions about the propertization of com- munications network infrastructure and bandwidth. These are questions about Commons, but also privacy and net neutrality. To what extent is Freedom ’in’ the network? How does this contribute to a sustainable net- work (in both technical and social terms). Who are the architects? All these questions (questions of sovereignty) raised by Lessig (1999) could be summarized as ”Who owns the network?”."

From the conclusion:

"This essay has particularly drawn on the work of Lessig, Boyle and Benkler - all important in Creative Commons. Their work shares similarities; crossover and re-use is evident in many aspects. Sharing is important in open architectures (social, technical – whether of licenses or networks) and essential to ’innovation commons’. Online, interoperability has been a built-in feature, accounting for a vast growth in networked software (Lessig, 2001). However, ”There is a tragedy in the innovation commons tendency of industry to add techniques to the network that undermine it” (Lessig, 2001, p.62); Although paramount to expanding commons, this interoperability is in no way guaranteed. New means to enforce copyright (operating at the code and physical layers) threaten as much.

CWNs promise an alternative. These cultures thrive on diversity. In and between groups, the focus is often on achieving shared objectives, rather than solving contentious political issues. Self-organization is the basis for development of all kinds. This may be for reasons of idealism, also pragmatism: uses proprietary software. Freifunk holds to Free Software principles, in its development of own-branded firmware and horizontal, grassroots democracy., with its size and reach, represents the occupation of a redundant space - a commons claimed. For Freifunk the image is of a space carved out - a commons created. In these ways, autonomous cultures (in particular, squatting cultures) are visible in both actual and conceptual terms. Economically, has been driven by the need for Internet access. It is subscription-based. The network is not free-for-all. However, it is self-funding (self-sustaining) and was built by its membership without external economic support; A case can be made for as an economics of autonomy. Freifunk offers free network access, both to the Berlin ’cloud’ and, through users’ connected nodes, to the external Internet. This clearly is an economics of autonomy, where ”the fact that others can free ride, doesn’t kill innovation” (Lessig, 2001, p.71). In these experimental spaces, which exist between Left and Right, where newcomers are pitted against incumbents and where all comers question the role of regulation (Lessig, 2001), the opposite of control (the opposite of property) emerges. In this space Free Software idealism, tempered by hacker-inspired pragmatism forges a culture and economics of autonomy." (


Two types of Community Wireless Networking

Magnus Lawrie:

"Two types of Wireless Network have been adopted by CWNs. Infrastructure mode relies on static ariels to share bandwidth to connecting client computers with management of the network on a separate centralized administrative layer. Ad-hoc wireless networks may also rely on a fixed infrastructure. Typically they are created between many communicating mobile devices (or ’nodes’). Ad-hoc wireless networks are said to be self-healing: If a node fails, data is automatically re-routed to find the shortest possible path between two end points.

* in Denmark is among the largest CWNs in the world).

250 volunteer built radio stations share fast internet connections with over 5000 remote rural households in an area of 3360 sq/km (Neilsen, 2007, p.3).

The Djursland peninsula, extending East from Jutland, is encircled by a fibre-optic backbone. At the end of the 1990s, despite the proximity of this communications ’trunk road’, most Djursland homes fell into the ’last mile’ of connectivity, where broadband was technically inoperable. For incumbent telecom providers, extending coverage was financially unjustifiable - market failure had occurred. By now Djursland had been in economic decline for some years. The closure in 1998 of Djursland’s only regional newspaper was the motivation to set up an internet information portal. Boevl, the computer enthusiasts’ group who took up this challenge had engaged in socially-active projects since 1992. With grant aid they had established a free access computer workshop, undertaken computer recycling and instigated fifteen similar projects in Lithuania and Kazakhstan. By practical steps of widening access to information and services, Boevl developed their vision of the ICT-Society in Djursland and from January 2001, worked with a decision making board towards the ideal of ”lightning fast internet access for a fixed price all over Djursland” (Neilsen, 2007, p.7). A phased development programme followed, with the pilot project expected to receive EU support. However, an obscure funding process resulted in the ruling that (even in the absence of competition) government intervention in the market was not allowed. As the options for external support dwindled, by increments Djursland’s network - built on DIY pragmatism more than Free Software idealism - became self-sustaining.

Through economies of scale and hobbyist-led technical innovations costs reduced, whilst individuals worked to greatly expand the network. Members of provided themselves fast internet access, at one-third of the subscriber fees in more ’economically viable’ urban areas.

* Freifunk:

Freifunk was established in Berlin in 2002 to create independent, community-based, non-commercial, open and uncensored data networks (Freifunk, 2004). Freifunk has done this using wireless technology, operating on unlicensed segments of the radio spectrum. Technical efforts have centred on adapting OpenWRT – Free Software run on consumer wireless routers.

The resulting ’firmware’, developed by a small team of volunteers, manages bandwidth allocation in order to maintain an equal flow of data throughout a wireless network; Regardless of network size, traffic, or the relative locations of two communicating points, data will be exchanged with equal priority.

A flexible ’mesh’ networking arrangement (many nodes connecting to many neighbour nodes) invests control of the network in the end devices, not an additional layer. By sharing technology and experiences, several Freifunk networks were established in Berlin. These were connected through wireless links known as the Berlin Backbone (BBB). Although the linked networks continued to operate independently, the BBB could be seen as an administrative layer which takes control away from end devices, whilst enhanced possibilities for local audio and video applications such as free radio, internet telephony and webTV advance the case for uncensored data and net neutrality. Freifunk’s social aim has been to strengthen existing organization and to develop e-democracy and grass roots structures appropriate to the digital era. Balances between social and technical participation in Freifunk networks is achieved by the absence of privileged nodes; horizontalism remains built in the network, whilst the hobbyist aspect of the organization keeps the network free to use and free of commercial interests. A diversity of participants and agendas is maintained through router firmware designed to put control with users." (

Typology of Wireless Mesh Networks

Magnus Lawrie:

"Two types of wireless mesh network exist. These we have seen in two distinctive CWNs: infrastructure (with a separate administrative layer) and ad-hoc (where control is ’in’ the network). These principles extend more or less easily to describe user participation in the network. An organizational hierarchy is more discernable in Djursland, whereas such distinctions are not so clearly deliniated in the Freifunk community. The case studies show cultures where organizational questions (technical and social) are always informed by a view where ”architecture is politics” (Kapor, 2006). Contrasting legal and technical systems for Free Content distribution present alternative models for dealing in scarce natural resources and cheap-to-copy data. Keeping Boyle’s objections in mind, we might consider the fate of software and public good in the Global Commons to be intertwined. Certainly, in this context, much thinking is being redefined. To this extent such hitherto arcane fields as economics and law are being opened to scrutiny, and even celebrity. In 1989 political rhetoric concentrated on the grand themes of Left versus Right. Today opposing sides are drawn less by political lines, more by pragmatic aims. The diversity of CWN membership, as well as recent Intelectual Property case law, suggests it is now far more a matter of incumbents versus newcomers. Participants in CWNs may be recognized as empiricists, not ideologues (Lessig, 2001, p.69), driven by rough consenus and running code (Clark, 1992). The ’viral’ and self-organizing characteristics of CWNs however suggest both a culture and economics of autonomy, which values the Free Software Definition."

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