The World Wide Web allows us to be stay connected with our near and dear ones all around the world. But, there are times when even the internet fails to dispense its duties. This was recently witnessed during the refugee crisis, where the telecommunications market failed to deliver internet connectivity to people in dire need of it.

Seeing the market fail to provide Internet to people in need, a number of citizen organisations have decided to step in and take the matters in their own hands.

One such community network that has had a good success rate is Freifunk.net. It has successfully filled the gap and provided necessary internet services to refugees present in Germany.

All this was achieved courtesy DIY networking, which is being deemed as one of the most innovative way in which communications technology is currently being used.

DIY networking is actually an umbrella term used for different types of grassroots networking, such as the mesh networks. These mesh networks are known not only to allow wifi routers to provide signals to wifi-enabled devices, but the routers also have the ability to connect to and talk to each other. One can create a larger wifi zone by connecting them or meshing them together.

It has been quite sometime that artists have been working on these networks as way to diversify and expand human communication abilities, while at the same time questioning the mainstream access to the World Wide Web.

These networks are also being employed as social tools so as to reconnect citizens, as it happened in the Sarantaporo.gr initiative in Greece. Not only Sarantaporo gifted a community solution for affordable internet access, but it also provided a model that can be considered revolutionary in nature for building networking infrastructure. The network attracted the attention of some of the most famous academics and institutions.

Such has been the quality and popularity of these networks that the Spanish community network, Guifi.net, ended up winning last year's European Union broadband award.

According to industry experts, these networks have a crucial role to play in challenging the domination of a few corporations over the Internet. Also, they are also raising the much needed attention towards surveillance, manipulation, privacy, net neutrality, and censorship.

How do they work?

A fact unknown to many, wireless routers can actually do much more than just connect one's devices to the net. They also have the ability of hosting a wide variety of web services, right from a simple website to a full fledged collaborative platform, which is accessible to only those who are in its physical proximity.

These also include an online guestbook for an urban garden, a virtual announcement board for apartments, a file-sharing platform for a particular workshop, and many more such innovative uses of the “self-hosted” web applications, like Etherpad, Wordpress etc. that can be used by anyone to host on a private web server.

All these services can be accessed through the router’s wireless antenna by announcing a network name, a Service Set IDentifier (SSID), almost similar to the way it happens when one tries connecting to a free or home wifi. They might just appear automatically on a splash page or captive portal when one opens their browser.

In cases where a router comes with a second antenna, it can easily be used to connect to a similar router present in the coverage area whose size is dependent on environmental factors and the type of antenna.

While the first antenna can be employed to allow people having their own personal devices to connect, the second antenna can be used for exchanging information with the neighbouring router. Each router then end up becoming a node in a small network, meaning anyone who ends up connecting to any one of them would be easily be able to avail their services, and people connected to, the other as well. As and when more nodes are connected, a larger area gets covered, and ends up forming a community, initially by the nodes' owners and eventually by every user in the area.

While creating such a network single handedly is a task, but one can surely build themselves a single network node by making use of a cheap hardware and a free self-hosted software for the purpose of installing the set of local services and applications of their own choice.

The one legal issue that one might face is when one tries to offer internet connectivity via such a network. This happens because of the liability issues that arise in the case of copyrighted content.

Personal networks

It is considered perfectly legal to operate such a node on its own, attached inside your back or to your home's balcony. This could become your very own personal network and you can even invite people around the area to join in.

Anyone in the proximity of the connection can join in without requiring any credentials or other identification, and without any internet connection. Occupy.here, the PirateBox or Polylogue are some examples of such personal networks.

There is a bright possibility of building and customising a wide variety of such DIY networks very soon by making use of the MAZI toolkit.

Community networks

It has been a long time that tech enthusiasts and activists have been pitching for the Internet to be a more open, neutral and democratic platform. The community wireless networks have been under development by them since the late 90's.

They constitute an interesting mix of local services, such as live streaming and the provision of net connectivity. Networks such as Sarantaporo.gr, Freifunk, WlanSlovenja, and many more lay their focus on this very aspect.

All of these also have several differences related to the very concept of the community and also the governance model.

For example, Freifunk follows a “free internet for all” approach, which mostly depends on the voluntary contributions received from its members. While Guifi.net has developed a unique model for itself in which it treats network infrastructure, including fibre cables, as separate from the services that they are providing.

When corporations step-in

In addition to all the communities, civil society organisations, researchers and engineers that are making efforts to bring the World Wide Web to all, there are also big organisations like Facebook and Google that are focused on doing the same.

Platforms by these giants have a potential of becoming possibly the only online places that people frequent. But, this would come at huge cost: their privacy and self-determination.

Hence, there is a need to built internet for the common good of the people and not to cater the interests of a few corporations.

By creating local alternatives, one makes an important contribution to the net-diversity debate, and also ends up serving various social, practical and political purposes.

[Top Image-umich.edu]

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