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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
Two years ago I wrote in this column of a Brave New Internet, based on the potential for a peer-to-peer wireless network. Rather than everyone relying on having a connection to a broadband carrier, I proposed that a simpler model would be a store and forward network amongst a group of registered wireless peers. Recently a couple of projects came to my attention which seem to move us closer to the scenario I imagined.
A Base of Your Own
Linksys has been one of the more longstanding providers of wireless networking hardware. In their early years, they were one of the more popular wireless base station vendors, but they shipped their products with a default configuration that allowed anyone with a wireless card to connect to their base stations. This made it easy for people to set up and connect to their base stations, but earned them the nickname "Linksys Community Network" since many people who owned those units didn't know that they were potentially providing wireless networking service to their neighbors and anyone else who happened to drive by.
One of the other things that Linksys (now owned by networking giant Cisco Systems) also did, was to publicly release the Linux source code used in their wireless routers. This allowed open source developers to create modified or customized versions of the firmware used to run the wireless base stations and routers, thereby extending their functionality and features.
It's a Beautiful Day
One example of custom firmware is done by a company called Sveasoft. Their version of firmware is available for an annual subscription fee. It includes numerous additional features, including a "mesh" configuration that will allow multiple base stations to connect to form neighborhood networks (that sounds familiar).
One of the more specialized firmware versions available is called Neighbornode. This project adds a neighborhood bulletin board to your Lynksys wireless router. According to their explanation, Neighbornode works by creating "spaces for people in the same area to communicate easily with one another via the Internet, and by then building these separate spaces into a network, so that information can travel between locales as residents of those areas see fit."
The Open Choice
One firmware project that is not based on the Lynksys release is OpenWrt. Rather than adding to the Linksys version, OpenWrt is a Linux firmware distribution compiled from scratch with only the packages needed to provide the same wireless features available from the "stock" version of the firmware. This leaves the Linux savvy the opportunity to add whatever other packages as needed to accomplish a particular function. As the OpenWrt documentation states, "the device is turned into a mini linux PC with OpenWrt acting as the distribution, complete with almost all traditional linux commands and a package management system for easily loading on extra software and features."
OpenWrt supports WDS or Wireless Distribution Protocol. WDS allows multiple wireless base stations to Interconnect. Using this scheme, base stations can accept client connections and relay them to other relay base stations or to a main base station with a wired network connection. Often, this protocol is used when configuring a wireless network in a building with one wired connection, but it could just as easily form a cooperative neighborhood network.
More Steps to Go
As interesting as these developments are, they still only apply to Linksys hardware or other routers with very similar chipsets. This is far from a universal solution which lets diverse kinds of hardware base stations easily form into a community mesh. As hardware matures, however, it tends to gravitate to one standard while being differentiated by software. So, the technology exists and it may not be too long before neighbors can form their own networks even if municipalities can't.