Without Net Neutrality, Is It Time To Build Your Own Internet?
Last week, the @FederalCommunicationsCommission went ahead with its deeply unpopular plan to end net neutrality protections, giving internet service providers like @AT&T, @Verizon, and @Comcast unprecedented control of our experience online. But what if you and your community could become your own internet service provider?
Congress can still reject the FCC’s decision, though at least one proposed bill suggests there’s reason not to be overly optimistic they will save the day. Either way, maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the internet — and with big ISPs that facilitate our access to the web. Instead of depending on monopolistic corporations, internet users can take back the net by building their own community-supported internet networks. Mesh networks can help. A mesh wireless antenna in Chinatown, New York. What is a mesh network? When we access the internet via an ISP, we are likely connecting via broadband, which is literally a giant cable that connects our ISP to top-level internet exchanges. In other words, the ISP acts as the central gatekeeper that ultimately controls our point of online access. Mesh networks, on the other hand, connect devices directly to each other. Rather than going through a central point, mesh networks allow for how we connect to automatically reconfigure according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth and storage. Since they are decentralized, the only way to shut down or otherwise disrupt a mesh network is to shut down every node in the network. This makes them much more resilient to interference or other disturbances. In more practical terms, by setting up specially configured wireless routers (known as “nodes”) that connect to other configured wireless routers, mesh networks allow local users to create a network that is physically distinct from the internet. (Although it can connect to the internet, it can also exist as its own local network.)Then, antennas installed on the outside of buildings connect to each other, forming a mesh network. Does this exist in the real world? A map of NYC Mesh’s current nodes. Active nodes are in red, and lines show supernode connections. Mesh wireless networks have already been deployed across the world, from New York’s NYC Mesh, Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative to eastern Afghanistan’s FabFi — though that was eventually shut down under pressure from local telecoms — to rural communities in South Africa. One of the most sophisticated mesh wireless networks is Guifi.net, a community network in Spain that has grown from a single node in 2004 to more than 30,000 in 2016. It has spawned the creation of local ISPs that connect its users to fiber Internet. In the short time since the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, there have already been a number of new mesh internet projects popping up, including Honolulu Mesh in Hawaii, while a group in Los Angeles just announced its first meet-up to begin planning. Other mesh wireless networks have been temporary, serving as a backup source of internet when the normal networks were knocked down. After Hurricane Sandy, when Internet and cell phone networks were knocked out in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, a mesh wireless network became the backbone of communication for the mostly low-income community. FEMA ended up installing a satellite internet connection at the community center, which then spread the internet via the mesh. How to Make Your Own How a mesh wireless network that connects to the Internet would look like Several organizations offer guides and free resources to create your own mesh wireless networks.