by Rob Flickenger

The Real Frontier Still Lies Ahead for Grassroots Wi-Fi

Nov 15, 20024 mins

While “community wireless” networks?small wireless networks intended to provide access where it wouldn’t normally exist?probably won’t greatly affect the rollout of next-generation wireless networks, they are already demonstrating their ability to provide exceptional network services in markets that most companies won’t touch. And even in areas that are already well served by incumbent DSL and cable modem providers, community networks offer unbelievable performance and features that premium broadband services can’t hope to compete with. For example, such networks already offer:

  • 11Mbps Wi-Fi data connections between points with latency comparable to Ethernet (typically three milliseconds per network hop, or about 1/10th of the latency of a DSL hop). New 802.11g gear can offer 22Mbps (without breaking backward compatibility), while next-generation 802.11a radios promise speeds in excess of 54Mbps.
  • Symmetric (albeit half-duplex) connections. Without the classic upload/download speed disparity of products like cable modems, it is possible to host servers anywhere that can “see” the wireless cloud.
  • Private addressing schemes (repurposed IPv4 or brand new IPv6) that don’t suffer from address shortages. To the end user, this means instant, always-on, fully routed connections for every machine in a household or business, without the need for network address translation, dynamic addressing or other technologies.
  • No contracts or monthly service fees, beyond local organization dues and the effort involved in maintaining one’s own equipment.

That’s all well and good for communicating within the wireless cloud, but what about Internet access? While wireless bits cost little more than equipment and energy to produce, Internet bits still involve a considerable monthly cost. Community organizers are learning that there is strength in numbers, and Internet bandwidth can be had for a significant discount when buying in bulk. We’re already beginning to see a reappearance of the “Ma & Pa” micro-ISP, where a neighborhood is served by a few people willing to share their commercial DSL line or off-hours T1 at their business. With technologies like NoCatAuth, bandwidth throttling and detailed network monitoring tools (like MRTG), node owners have complete control over how much access they contribute to the community effort, as well as the peace of mind that they can hold users accountable for their actions.

Where is all of this going? If community organizers have their way, it’s going to be everywhere. What happens when interested groups want to link together networks separated by great distances? (Suppose that NYCWireless wants to route packets to SeattleWireless but obviously can’t set up a point-to-point wireless connection between them.) Wherever direct line-of-sight isn’t achievable but other wired network access is available, it is possible to seamlessly connect the two networks. That is precisely what tunneling routing protocols like generic routing encapsulation (GRE) are intended for. If even one user on a wireless network can set up a GRE tunnel to another wireless network over the Internet, then all users on both networks can pass traffic to each other as if the tunnel (and hence the Internet) weren’t even there. If well managed (and with enough people participating in passing tunneled traffic between networks), it is entirely possible to build a new meta-network on top of the Internet, while retaining many of the benefits of the organization of local community networks.

Imagine the implications of a fully routed global TCP/IP network, where no user is quarantined behind network address translation, and local transport is fast, free and has unbelievably low latency. It opens up enormous possibilities for universal voice over IP, community streaming radio stations, localized services (and advertising) and perhaps the greatest business opportunity of all: the ability to more easily compete in a firmly entrenched incumbent telecommunications market. If any piece of the network is reachable from any other, then anyone participating can offer Internet gateway services, local telephone exchange services, Web hosting and more. Community wireless architects are aspiring to push the Internet back into the playground where no tragedy of the commons is possible, since no bully can hope to dominate it.