Power to the People! ISP price hikes and government snooping result in spread of open mesh wireless networks in the US

There are many so-called 'personal telco projects' either in use or being set up across the US. They are networks deployed and managed by the users themselves and, it is claimed, they are cheaper to run and not subject to the seemingly endless series of price increases that are causing so many American consumers to look elsewhere for their Internet access.

The idea is simple, moderately inexpensive and easy to deploy. In essence the networks are an agglomeration of interconnected wireless routers that propagate traffic between network users as well as broadcasting broadband access from nodes that are hard-wired to the Internet.

It's not dissimilar to the myriad of wi-fi hotspots now available in countless coffee shops and bars except that you don't have to buy an over-priced mokka-frokka-super-duper-whaat-a-sucker cappuchino the size of a milk pail to be able to use the network.

Isaac Wilder, a director of the Free Network Foundation speaking in an interview published in the New York Times said, “Our approach is to build our own autonomous system and actually allow people to participate in the Internet rather than participating by proxy through Time Warner, Google Fiber or any other retail ISP”.

No one seems to know exactly how many community wireless mesh networks there are in the US but they are proliferating. Indeed, the OTI, the Open Technology Institute (a part of the New America Foundation headquartered in Washington DC) is central to the whole community network movement and provides technical knowhow and advice, organises conferences and seminars and even helps to fund community projects.

In November the OTI launched its "Commotion Construction Kit", a step-by-step guide on how to set up a wireless mesh network using open source code and off-the-shelf routers and antennas. The OTI makes the point that as mesh networks can operate independently of the wider public Internet it is very much more difficult for governments and their agencies to shut them down whilst the fact that data pings back and forth unpredictably between mesh nodes makes traffic surveillance much more difficult.

That said, once users depart safety of the mesh and heads off to browse on the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on they become vulnerable to tracking and surveillance just as they would if accessing the sites via a traditional ISP.

The way round that is to jack directly into the backbone of the Internet thus bypassing the gateways, filters and restrictions that are part and parcel of ISP business practice, It is also the way to improved speed and greater privacy.

Interestingly, the OTI actually gets funding from the US State Department because Open Technology Institute know-how is provided free-of-charge to democracy advocates and activists living under the heel of repressive regimes around the world. It is ironic then that the self-same technology used to propagate western values and democracy in various parts of the world where they are conspicuously absent are also being deployed on US soil to circumvent the undemocratic surveillance techniques being practiced on the US domestic population by the likes of the NSA.

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