Excerpted from Primavera De Filippi:
“Beyond the benefits of costs and elasticity, little attention has been given to the real power of mesh networking: the social impact it could have on the way communities form and operate.
What’s really revolutionary about mesh networking isn’t the novel use of technology. It’s the fact that it provides a means for people to self-organize into communities and share resources amongst themselves: Mesh networks are operated by the community, for the community. Especially because the internet has become essential to our everyday life.
Instead of relying on the network infrastructure provided by third party ISPs, mesh networks rely on the infrastructure provided by a network of peers that self-organize according to a bottom-up system of governance. Such infrastructure is not owned by any single entity. To the extent that everyone contributes with their own resources to the general operation of the network, it is the community as a whole that effectively controls the infrastructure of communication. And given that the network does not require any centralized authority to operate, there is no longer any unilateral dependency between users and their ISPs.
Mesh networking therefore provides an alternative perspective to traditional governance models based on top-down regulation and centralized control.
Indeed, with mesh networking, people are building a community-grown network infrastructure: a distributed mesh of local but interconnected networks, operated by a variety of grassroots communities. Their goal is to provide a more resilient system of communication while also promoting a more democratic access to the internet.
So why hasn’t mesh networking already taken off?
Well, there are technical reasons of course. The complexity to set up, manage, and maintain a mesh network is one obstacle to their widespread deployment. Getting a mesh network to work properly can be harder than it seems, especially when it comes to latency. Although the technology is there, routing protocols are currently unable to scale over a few hundred nodes and network coverage is constrained by the limited range of wireless user devices.
Another barrier is perception (and marketing). Mesh networks are generally seen as an emergency tool rather than a regular means for communication. While many mesh networks have been deployed during a period of crisis (during the Boston marathon bombing for example) or after standard communication infrastructures have been damaged or destroyed (such as the Redhook initiative in Brooklyn), very few have been deployed beforehand. They’re used more as an ad hoc measure than a precautionary one that could provide an alternative and more resilient network infrastructure.
Finally, there are political and power struggles, of course. Even though mesh networking could theoretically support the government in providing internet connectivity to poor neighborhoods or undeserved areas, mesh networks cannot be easily monitored, nor properly regulated by third parties. As such, mesh networks are sometimes regarded by the state as a potential danger — one that could disrupt public order by providing a platform for criminal activities.
The same is true of the private sector. For large ICT companies (including mobile operators and ISPs) mesh networking constitutes a new competitor in the market for internet communication, which — if it were more widely deployed — could potentially jeopardize their traditional business model based on pay-per-use and monthly subscriptions. Whether nefariously or simply because of structural circumstances, these actors are all committed to maintaining the status quo of the current internet ecosystem.
As has been done with Freifunk in Germany and GuiFi.net in Spain, more mesh networks need to be deployed on an arbitrary basis. This will help establish the basic infrastructure necessary to ensure the autonomy and long-term sustainability of a community-based network structure. One that, in any kind of situation, can connect people and even save lives.
But beyond the internet, the governance model of many community wireless networks could potentially translate into other parts of our life. By promoting a DIY approach to network communications, mesh networking represents an opportunity to realize that it can sometimes be more beneficial for us, as a community, to rely on our own resources and those of our peers than that of centralized authorities. It’s bringing the principles of the internet to our physical lives.”