Mesh Wireless Networks: A REAL Detroit Future

By Sarah Coffey

This is going to get a little deep for a minute but just hang in there with me.  A 97 year old woman I know says we’re at a time in history comparable to the shift from the Hunter-Gatherer era to the Agrarian era or the Agrarian to the Industrial.  At the center of this change is a shift toward systems of shared power and away from systems that use power over others to dominate.

As land is a type of power, so information and access to information is a type of power. Unlike land and other forms of power which the ultra-rich have completely gamed, anyone can still get on the internet and share information, and therefore power.  As we’ve seen with the international wave of social movements from the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Indignados in Spain to Occupy in the U.S., the ability to share and access information translates into the ability to cooperate across broad numbers of people in a decentralized way, another form of power.  We’ve only begun to realize the possibilities.

‘Wonderful!’ you say, ‘a new day of equality and global kinship has dawned.  Finally!’  Not so fast there sister, we’ve got some vulnerabilities.  As the successful 2012 fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) shows, corporate interests and elements within the government are actively hatching devious laws to limit free speech and our ability to connect with each other.   The harsh legal persecution of digital activists such as Aaron Swartz and Jeremy Hammond are now typical, if despicable, responses to people who refuse to settle for the status quo.

Another major obstacle to free and equal access to this paradigm shifting technology is that the infrastructure which currently provides us with internet access is being quickly and heavily privatized by Verizon.  The public sector had a mandate to ensure that electricity and telephone services were universal, but that’s not the case with information services.  While other essential infrastructure like water and sewage or highways are maintained for the common good by the public sector, the private sector is strategically maneuvering to have ultimate power over our means to connect and share.

Enter mesh wireless networks.  Mesh wireless networks currently exist in New York, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Champaign-Urbana, San Francisco and possibly other cities around the US.  Apparently our US networks are dwarfed by European networks — the largest are reportedly the Funkfeuer network in Vienna, the Friefunk network in Berlin and the Athens network in Greece.  When Superstorm Sandy hit New York and the phones and internet went down, the Red Hook neighborhood mesh wireless network was still functioning and allowed people to share crucial information about what was happening and where help was needed.

‘But what is it?’ you ask?  It’s basically community controlled communications infrastructure that can be used as another way to connect to the internet and/or as a neighborhood “intranet.”  An example of what one neighborhood intranet looks like is the platform Tidepools which was designed for local communication, placemaking, and organizing around events, issues, community assets and which runs locally on New York’s Red Hook mesh network.  Currently Tidepools hosts an application for accessing real-time bus locations, a Stop and Frisk survey that residents can use to document police interactions and improve community safety, and they’re developing RHI Radio, an online radio station streaming content produced by the Youth Radio Group at Red Hook Initiative.

While mesh networks may not be replacing fiber-optic cables anytime soon, they’re a practical experiment in rethinking the internet, closing the digital divide between those who have access and those who don’t.

The Digital Stewards class of Detroit Future Media (DFM) is working on expanding the existing Cass Corridor mesh network and building new ones on the Eastside, in Morningside and Ewald Circle that will allow anyone with a computer in the mesh area to get on the internet, depending on how the community decides to set them up.  But more interestingly, the intranet function of the mesh networks allows us to experiment with new ways of communicating and connecting with each other.

The class, taught by members of the Open Technology Institute and DFM, is learning collaborative network design along with how to program and install the systems.  Students come from a variety of grassroots community groups and organizations such as Modern Evolution, 5E Gallery, Michigan Welfare Rights, and Occupy Detroit among others.  While government, the private sector, and the foundation/non-profit industrial complex are steady trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s “solutions,” techies and grassroots organizers are working with Detroit neighborhoods to build a new type of infrastructure for balanced power, and a future that everyone can share.