Freifunk – A Five Years Summary

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Description

freifunk.net is a non-commercial free open wireless “meta” community, founded in 2003 with its roots in Germany. It is part of the global movement for free wireless networks. Based on the concept of an ‘open public local access network’ (see: http://oplan.org), developed by Malcolm Matson (a UK network pioneer) freifunk.net aims not only to provide technical and general information about open wireless networks, but seeks also to help individuals and organizations raise public consciousness about freedom of information and communication.

freifunk.net is a community brand and a community franchise model for gathering and providing information, knowledge and solutions about the technical and social aspects of building and running wireless community networks. freifunk.net provides websites, firmwares, software (i.e. mesh-protocols), technical expertise, teaching material and easy-to-understand DIY-manuals for starting a wireless community. It follows a path of maximum decentralisation in it’s community structure and in it’s technical solutions. Enabling and supporting local activities and actors and using the snowball effect are absolutely key to all activities.

Wireless networks have been clearly identified as a key to reduce the so called “digital divide”. Digital wireless communication in general is seen as one of the most beneficial technologies, especially in the developing countries. Not every angle of the world can be reached by either commercial or state-run organisations. There are many places on the globe which can be seen as so called “areas of market failure” – places where people have to help themselves. These are freifunk.net’s target groups. By setting up local wireless intranets (OPLANs) the community members can share their knowledge, data and bandwidth. On top of that network they can run various applications like VoIP, community-radio, Wikis, etc. Existing network infrastructures can be included. The community members can share expensive broadband internet connections and expand the geographical outreach of the internet. One important precondition is to share the network infrastructure amongst each other and for every individual to donate part of their bandwidth to allow free data transit for all other participants (see: http://picopeer.net/PPA-en.html).

Today many members of the freifunk.net community have become experts in their field. They are offering and spreading their knowledge within a global network that has been established over the last 5 years. In 2006 the freifunk.net presentation (see: https://freifunk.net/downloads/freifunk-praesentation_engl.pdf) had been held in front of the Indian ICT-Ministry. The activities have expanded way beyond Germany and the topics addressed reach out to all aspects of free communication infrastructures, such as the development of new innovative technologies, spectrum licensing politics or lobbying manufacturers for the global availability of inexpensive and FOSS compliant hardware.

Objectives

  • Trigger and enable individuals and organizations setting up, maintaining and spreading communications infrastructures (local intranets and shared internet connections), especially in rural areas where commercial or public initiatives see no clear benefit of or are unable to set up such structures
  • Create public consciousness about freedom of information and communication
  • Democratization of communication media (turning the passive consumer into a compassionate participant and broadening the public domain)
  • Improve the existing local social networks by enhancing social and technical communication structures
  • Provide cheap and applicable technical solutions to set up free / open wireless networks
  • Influence policy makers to open more frequencies beyond the wi-fi frequency, to open and de-license more of the electro-magnetic spectrum
  • Spread knowledge of how to set-up a successful community projects through sharing the elements/methodology of running a non-hierarchical community network
  • Promote exchange of knowledge and information between national and international groups through the continuous building of a global spanning social network. A global community of people with various skills, (software engineers, social engineers, hardware experts, marketing people etc) sharing/offering their expertise many places in the world
  • Lobbying hardware manufactures to produce and distribute cheap and suitable FOSS compliant wireless hardware with a special focus on the developing countries

Language and context

freifunk.net has it’s roots in Germany but is continuously increasing it’s international engagement. Besides an intense exchange with European and US individuals and groups it also has established lots of relationships in the developing world, especially in India an Africa (see: http://wirelessafrica.meraka.org.za/wiki/images/f/fe/Building_a_Rural_Wireless_Mesh_Network_-_A_DIY_Guide_v0.7_65.pdf).

Project History

Initially freifunk.net was started in March 2003 by launching the first version of the freifunk.net website with its significant brand design and a set of first articles on how to set up wireless networks. It was inspired by likewise projects from the US and England and became a localized platform for activities in the German speaking countries, as an reaction to the fact that by that time there had been a great lack of broadband coverage in Germany, too, especially in the eastern counties. Right after the launch the number of visits increased continuously from 200 to more than 100000 visits per month today. Over time new community applications (wikis, event-calendars, blogs and mailing lists) have been added. The website itself became a decentralized infrastructure, where various people are taking the responsibilities for their individual offers. Sub-domains are delegated to local communities, providing their own localized web-platforms (see https://freifunk.net/community).

freifunk.net goes global

In the same year freifunk.net organized the first freifunk.net summer convention in Berlin – a get-together of various German and European network activists. Due to the great interest as a follow up together with the Danish community project Djurslands.Net freifunk.net co-organized a meeting in rural Denmark in 2004. More than 200 people from 32 countries and 5 continents participated in that 10 days workshop labelled „fresh air – free networks“.
http://freifunk.net/magazin/gesellschaft_politik/aruns_comment_sc04
http://freifunk.net/magazin/gesellschaft_politik/leitartikel_sc

At the end of the conference Juergen Neumann from freifunk.net and Julian Priest from consume.net came up with the vision of organizing a series of events labelled “World Summits of Free Information Infrastructures – WSFII” inside and outside Europe (see http://wsfii.org).

In October 2005 “wireless London” then hosted an international preparation-conference to plan a meeting in India. Various people (a.o. Juergen Neumann and Elektra Wagenrad from freifunk.net) came to London a week in advance to start writing a free book on how to build wireless networks (see: http://wdnw.net). And in October 2006 on Invitation of His Holiness The Dalai Lama a bunch of over 100 People from around the globe gathered in Dharamsala, India, for a 10 days conference, the “air jaldi summit” (fast air) organized by TibTech. Various members of the freifunk.net community help with the preparations and held workshops on social, technical and economical aspects of building and maintaining wireless community networks. Over time many close relationships of freifunk.net members and various other individuals and organisations from around the globe have been established. This is an ongoing process of exchange of knowledge and experience. In between the physical meetings various digital tools hosted by freifunk.net members are supporting this process.

Due to its community structures freifunk.net has gathered experts from various fields, offering their expertise to continuously develop and make it easier to widen the network. Technically, this aim has resulted in a developer community creating the freifunk firmware (FFF) and mesh-software (important enhancements to OLSR and creating B.A.T.M.A.N – the Better Approach to Mobile Ad-hoc Networks) offered freely to any interested user. The freifunk firmware with it’s build in meshing abilities turns off-the-shelf access points into meshing network nodes which automatically connect to any other node within signal reach.

The established freifunk.net meshed networks (especially in Berlin, Leipzig and Weimar) have also proven to offer best testing conditions to try out new mesh-technologies, which is i.e. is made use of by the German Fraunhofer Gesellschaft.

Lastly, throughout Germany many local freifunk.net initiatives have been founded in rural and urban areas. The term freifunk.net has become an equivalent of free wireless community networks, quoted many times in the German press. It has set an example for many wireless communities all over the globe.

People

freifunk.initiators

freifunk.net was initiated by Jürgen Neumann, Hauke Altmann, Monic Meisel, Ingo Rau, Iris Rabener, Olaf Koglin, Jürgen Klaassen, Jens Nachtigall, Werner Schultheiss and Christian Heise.

freifunk.firmware community

the freifunk.firmware is the technical implementation of the freifunk-ideas and visions. The development of the freifunk.firmware is mainly due to the engagement of Sven-Ola Tücke, Sven Wagner, Bruno Randolf, Elektra Wagenrad und Marek Lindner. The freifunk.firmware has been translated into 6 languages so far.

Lessons learned

Considering the performance of the initial team we have achieved far more than we have dared to dream about. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to affect/influence the political decision-making process in regards to e.g. the assignment policy of further open radio frequencies (free spectrum) enough yet. Further more we still see a great need to establish more widespread freifunk-like communication infrastructures in public-private-partnerships. But there are incipiencies. Concerning the structure the very decentralized community-franchise-model in combination with meshing technologies are excellent to deal with rapid growth. This makes the freifunk.net-model especially interesting for developing countries like India or Africa, which both have a huge demand in building widespread low-cost communication infrastructures. It’s very good to see that various freifunk.net communities in urban and rural places over time have proven that these models can work in reality.

Technical Information

Technological Basis

The freifunk.net websites use Linux based Open Source Software (Zope/Plone, Drupal, Mediawiki, etc.) exclusively. The planning and coordination of tasks takes place using internet based platforms and mailing lists. Content-wise freifunk.net engages theoretically and practically in the building of shared infrastructures. An important technology in this work is the wireless LAN, as it is cost favourable, license-free and easy to use.

Solutions

freifunk.net has also developed its own software, the freifunk firmware (FFF), based on OpenWRT, a Linux based operating system for WLAN Access Points. This software turns an ordinary and inexpensive standard AccessPoint into an relatively easy to configure meshing node. Meshing means that a stand-alone AccessPoint can automatically connect with any other AccessPoint within signal reach – resulting in versatile network coverage that isn’t depending on continuous configuration of the single nodes. The mesh-technology thus demands fewer technical experts to build, maintain and spread the network, making such an infrastructure self-driven, fault tolerant, self-healing and inexpensive
(see: http://wiki.freifunk.net/Freifunk_Firmware_%28English%29). Members of the freifunk.net community have greatly enhanced the most widespread meshing protocol OLSR and are currently developing an new state-of-the-art approach named B.A.T.M.A.N., the Better Approach to Mobile Ad-hoc Networking (see: http://open-mesh.net).

Implementations

freifunk.firmware

You now find free WLAN radio networks that use the freifunk.firmware all over the world, either under the freifunk.net brand or in independent initiatives. It has been especially popular in developing countries due to the wide usability of the firmware and the low costs of implementation.

Here is an early example:

„My name is Yusuf Kaka and I am a Software Engineer/Researcher at a newly formed research organsiation called the Meraka Institute in South Africa (See http://www.meraka.org.za www.meraka.org.za and http://www.csir.co.za www.csir.co.za ). The focus of our research is on using ICT (Information and Communication Technology) to solve developing world and more specifically, South African problems like bridging the Digital Divide. A major problem in SA is that the rural communites ( around 50% of the total population) do not have access to communication infrastructure and there is no will by the current Telecom monopoly to provide this infrastructure. Furthermore, the monopoly also controls all the international Internet bandwidth and as a result Internet access is ridiculously expensive and unaffordable to even middle-class urban citizens.

We, at the Meraka institute are investigating whether community owned networks, like the freifunk berlin network can be used in our context to provide infrastructure in rural areas and help with high internet costs by making possible for people in urban areas to share bandwidth, even thought the legality thereof is not yet fully determined. We have setup 3 test networks; An indoor, 50 node mesh test-bed, an outdoor urban mesh network in Pretoria and a rural mesh network in a village in Mpumulanga. Both the urban and rural networks consist of WRT54G nodes running the Freifunk firmware. A colleague of mine is doing research into the various routing protocols, including OLSR, AODV etc. I will be concentrating on services runnning ontop of mesh networks, particularly voice communication. We are quite inspired by the work done by you and your colleagues and would like to have the opportunity to exchange information and perhaps contribute to your work on Freifunk.

Furthermore, I am also part of a community mesh network in Johannesburg, (JAWUG, Johannesburg Areas Wireless User Group, http://jawug.za.net http://jawug.za.net) and have managed to setup a sub-mesh in my communty called wild_west_mesh with about 15 members, also using Freifunk and WRT54G’s.” (Mail from October 2005)

As stated earlier, Meraka Institute has finally chosen the freifunk.net solution as their preferred recommendation. In February 2008 Elektra Wagenrad visited the Institute for giving lessons about meshing technologies. Also by using their test bed she experienced excellent performance results for B.A.T.M.A.N. and higher routing stability than OLSR.

Users

freifunk.net understand itself as a social network initiative, open for everyone who is interested/willing to take part in it.

User of the freifunk.net idea is every person that wants to share their network resources and knowledge. Through this engagement several other people can benefit in the form of cost-favorable shared internet access and/or free, local communication infrastructures such as VoIP telephony and community radio.

freifunk.communities

Since the founding of freifunk.net 5 years ago more than 5500 people are registered members of freifunk.net. Moreover there is a growing number of people (loosely measured in tens of thousands) connected to the various freifunk.net communities all over the world. The biggest communities in Germany are in Berlin (~800 Nodes), Leipzig (~500 Nodes) and Weimar (~300). All networks are growing by about 10 to 20 new nodes every month.
And there are hundreds of people in small rural villages in many places on the globe who have adopted the freifunk.net model and technical sollutions to provide network infrastructures to their local community.

Providing these infrastructures many thousands of people have gained free or less expensive access to the internet and free and open local intranet infrastructures for e.g. local VoIP telephony, data exchange or other applications.

License

The public documents of freifunk.net are all released under the Creative Commons or Free Document License and are therefore freely available at no cost. The freifunk.firmware is GPL licensed.

Statement of Reasons

Since its foundation freifunk.net has proven that it provides a community model, teaching material, technical solutions and workshops to really serve people’s need for low-cost do-it-yourself local digital communication infrastructures.

None the less the public recognition and awareness of the project and it’s provided solutions is still underestimated, especially by politicians and decision makers. Non-commercial decentralized models and structures are still regarded dubious and malfunctioning. So much the worse instead of seeing all the benefits for the persons concerned of the digital devide, free and open communication infrastructures are more and more threatened by anti-terror laws, censorship and the persecution mania of the content industries.

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