The other night I went to a Free the Net meeting at Bryght in Gastown. I hadnâ€™t been there since two BarCamps ago, when theyâ€™d barely moved in and everything was primer white. Theyâ€™ve pimped their space foâ€™ shoâ€™â€¦. Flourescent apple green walls, obnoxious red chairs and sticky notes offering moustache rides, $1. Itâ€™s a cool space, despite its efforts; across the plexiglass divide is another Drupal shop, Raincity Studios. Iâ€™m guessing itâ€™s a fun place to work.
Anyhoo. About 15 peeps, including usual suspects (and hosts) kk+, Boris and Roland, plus a variety of geeks about town. SFU was in tha house, with Richard Smith, JÃ©an HÃ©bert (see his post about the event here) and yours truly representinâ€™. I did my usual gender check: 12 nerdy boys to 3 geeky girls. The more things change the more they stay the same etc. etcâ€¦
So what is this business about freeing the net? Isnâ€™t it free already, sorta? Well thereâ€™s this idea of mesh thatâ€™s going to blow things apart, sorta. It evolved out of MITâ€™s roofnet project, which developed the protocols for mesh networking on PCs. According to Wikipedia, mesh networking â€œis a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by â€˜hoppingâ€™ from node to node until the destination is reached.â€ There is no longer a need for base stations; instead an arrangement of short p2p connections evolves as more users join the network.
Basically mesh routing technology increases range and network capacity, enabling one internet connection to go a long way, perhaps unwiring an entire neighbourhood. The more nodes that connect up, the broader the reach. The coolest part is that people hopping on to the mesh network donâ€™t need to have an Internet connex; they basically share the hostâ€™s bandwidth.
At this meeting, I bought a Meraki Mini, a small wireless mesh repeater. Iâ€™m just like that. It has plug â€˜n play setup and configuration (thank goddess) so when I eventually take it out of the box Iâ€™ll become the host node for my â€˜hoodâ€™s meshwork â€“ no fuss no muss. The idea is to hook up to other nearby nodes to extend and strengthen Vancouverâ€™s emergent wifi system. According to Meraki, its hosted back-end system automatically configures every router as part of each individual network; the companyâ€™s web-based centralized management shows how things are working through an allegedly simple, intuitive interface (Iâ€™ll let you know) that can be securely used from anywhere in the world.
Boris wrote about community wireless a year ago. He wasnâ€™t sure about Meraki then but the other day he was the guy handing out the nifty gadgets for $60 a pop. The big deal is this: Merakiâ€™s mesh networks supposedly cover significantly more geographic area and users than earlier wireless networks.
This is how the company explains it: â€œInstead of relying on a single large antenna to cover every user, each radio in a Meraki network cooperates to find the best path to carry a user’s traffic to the Internet. As they operate, every network re-evaluates thousands of routing paths every minute, resulting in amazing reliability and network capacity. Meraki’s intelligent mesh routing means every repeater you add extends the reach of the network and makes the mesh more reliable by adding additional links.â€ So intelligent traffic queuing and packet prioritization plus the capacity to add unlimited network gateways enables demand-based growth of the network.
This works well for unwiring a low-income housing project, or an entire city. Again, supposedly, hundreds of neighbours can share a robust and reliable network supplied by only a few broadband connections. One Mini has a range of between 30-50 metres. Because itâ€™s relatively cheap and apparently idiot-proof, networks can be built with a high density of repeaters; obviously this leads to better coverage and a more robust mesh.
According to MITâ€™s Technology Review, Meraki â€œis using San Francisco as a testing ground to see if a user-driven mesh network can connect a large urban area.â€ Where Google and Earthlink have thus far failed to install a free city-wide wifi system in SanFran, Meraki has had some early success, with 6000 users able to access the Internet thanks to their â€œFree the Netâ€ program. The company has plans to expand its initial giveaway of 200 routers by a few thousand. The system will be built from the rooftops, balconies, and windows of anyone who wants to participate.
Some important points about mesh networking that came out of the meeting:
1. It provides low cost access based on a business model.
2. It is user driven (no bureaucratic/political red tape etc.)
3. It enables a community to connect to itself
4. It can facilitate critical mass through mobile on demand wireless for events
5. It reduces the digital divide within â€œdevelopedâ€ nations
Richard Smith summed up the importance of mesh networking: â€œPeople who own and operate a mesh node contribute to the overall health and vitality of the network.â€ On the one hand, this seems an unlikely form of community activism; on the other hand, maybe thatâ€™s just what being in a community is about.