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The Spiderweb Project – a citizen-owned WiFi mesh network

photo of Sepp Hasslberger

Sepp Hasslberger
6th July 2010


This is an announcement I found on an Italian facebook page. It is about a project in two Italian towns to construct a citizen-owned WiFi mesh network that will allow direct communication of all participants and will link into the internet at provider level.

Here is a translation of the (Italian) announcement. I believe that this project might profitably be replicated in many places across the planet. This particular proposal envisions the use of WiFi on rooftops. It would also be possible to use optical data transfer technology for such a network, as I recently discussed on this blog in an article titled

Application Content Infrastructure bypasses Internet Backbone, opens way for P2P ‘last mile’ net

Project SPIDERWEB – a citizen-owned WiFi (mesh) network

This is a group of persons who intend to construct a citizen-owned WiFi mesh network to bring free and low-cost communication in the area of Cerveteri-Ladispoli (two towns just north of Rome).

The Mission:

We are used to seeing our relation with a telephone or internet provider as if the way things are arranged was the only possible model. Today, this is a relation of “one (the provider) with many (us)”. In practice, this is the same model that is used for all vital services, energy, gas and so on. In this case we often have a monopolistic provider who repetitively charges a number of costs, putting them on the shoulders of that “one” who has to pay the high price of the service.

The relation therefore becomes either centralized where one point provides a service to large parts of the population or in the best of cases it is decentralized where several points provide service to a more limited number, as in the case of telecommunication. In both of these models of distribution however it is always one who distributes to single users and who charges a fee or metered tariff for its services.

On the other hand, it would be much more interesting if everyone became both a user and provider of the service having a direct connection with the whole distributed network. In that case, everyone becomes a node in the network, receiving and transmitting the signal. All of these nodes together form a reliable network of distributed ownership.

In this model, the ‘last mile’ would not be run by Telecom (Italian national phone company), and the various providers who lease their lines with costs that are inevitably paid by the final user. The distributed mesh network would be a real ‘last mile provider’ owned by the citizens, which would of course make it possible to provide a number of FREE services on that network because it is owned by those who use it.

Those are a lot of interconnected, communicating nodes that can exchange data and information at high throughput rates in wireless mode. Today instead, even to communicate with our neighbor, if we use the internet, we have to go through our provider and then back down through his, to reach his computer. It is the same with the telephone. We have to get connected to the nearest telephone switchboard to then go down again through the wires to our neighbor’s phone.

With this distributed mesh system instead, I have a direct line to anyone who is part of the network, and I don’t have to go through any intermediaries. Only one access to the internet will be needed and it will be freely distributed, carried by the active nodes of the distributed network.

Increasing available bandwidth

One good point is that in this case, the sharing of bandwidth will not penalize the users because everyone of them receives and amplifies the signal. The local net even increases the available bandwidth, since every user can talk directly with any other user in the network. In practice, I will have a high velocity network where the cost of data traveling inside the network is extremely low if not zero, paying only when access to the internet is needed.

The network will have guaranteed wide band connectivity because if the network buys from a provider access at 10 megabit, those will be 10 real megabit, both in download and in upload, rather than a “best scenario” figure which often the case today. This direct control of bandwidth makes it possible to use services that are difficult to implement today because of a lack of bandwidth, such as streaming, VOIP etc. In the average our connections, even though nominally they reach 8 megabit, are some 2.5 or 3 in download and a mere 0.4 in upload.

The distributed network will attain notable contractual power. It is no longer the single user who contracts for bandwidth and has to accept the conditions of a small choice of providers. The network as a whole contracting for bandwidth can obtain much more favorable conditions than we could, each one of us alone.

Another important point is that a network of this kind will be less vulnerable to blackouts and to catastrophic events such as earthquakes, because nodes automatically connect to the closest active node in their vicinity and the network automatically reconfigures to keep on working. In case access to the internet were interrupted, it would still be possible to communicate through the local net. The cost of running the network would be much lower and the net would be more resistant.

Community services

The local network can become a provider of service to companies that need broad band access to deliver their products to end users, things like streaming of movies that no longer have to be rented on DVD, publicity of local products over dedicated community TV channels and so on. There are also public utility services that could use the network, from e-learning for kids who have to stay home, connecting them directly to the school, to the provision of emergency help to older people, from TV and radio for neighborhoods and towns to administrative services such as obtaining documents, making appointments with local administration etc. The network cost for those services that do not need access to the internet, would be negligible.

Any user with a smart phone could hook up to the network at any point, same for any PC or notebook with a network card. Phone calls can be made through VOIP, obtaining large savings and, thanks to the large available bandwidth, good quality of connection. In the future, when the distributed access system is widely adopted, the different last mile providers may link up and perhaps with one account we can obtain access anywhere, even when away on holidays. Compared to today’s access costs, savings should be around 40%, perhaps more, while quality and variety of services to choose from would be much better.

A low cost solution

Using WiFi technology, this infrastructure can be constructed at a very reasonable cost and after urban networks have been completed, one could think about connecting outlying areas that do not have good access today. Think about it – the network could be financed using only the current costs of connection for one year and the connectivity costs of the local administration.

While it would be optimal to construct this network in conjunction with the local administration, in case this cannot be arranged, there is always the possibility to link up directly from the bottom up, with people putting a WiFi antenna on their rooftop and starting to share the network. Such a network can grow in a natural way, automatically adjusting to changes in size. Once the threshold of a hundred nodes is reached, and even better with a higher number, bandwidth can be acquired from a provider and thus the network has its own dedicated access to the internet.

From an ecological and emissions point of view, mesh networks that adopt wireless technology work with an rooftop antenna that can serve several people and emits 20 to 30 milliwatt, consuming only 6 Watt of electricity. In comparison, the cell phones which we keep in our pockets have emission strengths in the range of 500 to 1500 milliwatt.

The hardware costs for each node range from a low of 70 to a high of 200 euro for the technologically more advanced devices. The visual impact is limited and certainly lower than that of a traditional or a parabolic TV antenna. Installation is not subject to permits, it is enough to inform your building administration. Technical needs include an electricity outlet, possibly with its own counter to determine consumption, and a data cable going down to your apartment, which could utilize the same space as the standard TV cable.

Similar networks are already functioning in various places:

Catalonia, Spain (Guifi.net)

Ljubljana, Slovenia (wlan-lj.net) (wikipedia)

Athens, Greece (Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network)

Rome, Italy (Ninux.org)

Not all community wireless networks are citizen owned. The majority of them seem to be organized at the level of local administration. As this incomplete list on wikipedia shows, there are a large number of these networks already, but there could be many, many more…

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