Some notes and thoughts about freifunk.net and free networks …

The early initial work that me and my colleagues took in the year 2002 was to set up a website and to find simple mechanisms to gather all the people out there who wanted to do the very same things. Freifunk.net was very much inspired by the British consume.net. I got to know all these people from Britain in early 2002 and one of my first plans was to simply call/label the German community de.consume.net. But the more we thought about it, we realized that this really wouldn’t make much sense. This is because local activities need a localized branding etc. Also the German term freifunk means free radio, a very strong name which speaks a lot from it self in the German speaking community.

There are a few rules that we have adopted for freifunk.net that make it so strong:

  1. It is totally non-commercial (no ads, no paid labour, no legal body, it’s just a movement of equals!)
  2. The technical infrastructure is based on the picopeering agreement: http://picopeer.net
  3. It is as decentralized as possible
  4. It is meant to connect and support all people, who are willing to build and use free wireless infrastructures (no exclusions)
  5. It is part of an international movement like this: http://www.wsfii.org
  6. It has a good design and a strong brand which works like a community franchise model – everyone can adopt the design and will find style-sheets and GPLed logos and presentations to use themselves here: http://wiki.freifunk.net/Freifunk-Styles, http://freifunk.net/downloads/freifunk-praesentation_engl.pdf
  7. It doesn’t serve the community – it is the community
  8. It’s based on the strong idea of DIY motivation (If you want to build a boat, tell the people about the beauty of the sea!)
  9. We have our own free GPLed firmware which can be customized to different looks and designs, extended with individual plug-ins and which is used by many other communities on the globe with different brandings. The firmware is the technical implementation of the freifunk-ideas and visions: http://ff-firmware.sourceforge.net/
  10. freifunk.net is also a Domain Name Service, which delegates sub-domains for cities, regions or organisations to the local communities an their websites: e.g. http://augsburg.freifunk.net, http://berlin.freifunk.net, http://leipzig.freifunk.net, or more general: http://freifunk.net/community/
  11. There are several websites, blogs and services which are of relevance for all communities. These are e.g.: http://global.freifunk.net, http://blogs.freifunk.net, http://freifunk.net, http://firmware.freifunk.net etc.
  12. People with different skills, social and technical engineers, web-designers, coders, text-writers, marketing experts, artists can all help to push the movement – and everyone will profit from a truly free local wireless infrastructure, to share files, contents, VOIP, and share the costs for an internet access.

But as I have learned over the years, this process needs one or more individuals to push and to protect the points I have addressed earlier. The initiative needs to be protected from being overtaken by some egotistic personalities or commercial entities. And it needs people to initialize and push this process. I am very happy to see that there are a growing number of people in the world who are understanding the strength of a true non commercial community approach. I am also very much aware of the fact that the means of “non-commercial” and the ability of user contribution vary a lot between e.g. Europe and other countries. But even under different conditions I think that there is a good chance to try to build a network together with the local community. Let’s have a closer look at cost structures at first:

  1. Hardware (computers, router, cables, Antennas)
  2. Education
  3. Roll-out (set up costs)
  4. Electricity
  5. Maintenance and Support Services

I’m leaving out costs for Internet-access, as in our model of a free network, this is an extra service that can be run on a free network (e.g. via a virtual private network). But the expenses e.g. on a VSAT line should be an extra business case on top of the free wireless Intranet. To understand more about the idea of true Open Public Local Access Networks (OPLANs), please also take a look at Malcolm Matson¬ís website (http://www.oplan.org).

Here in Germany all of the costs listed above are truly user contributed. Users buy their own hardware and pay for electricity themselves. We/individuals offer free trainings to educate them, how to connect the routers to the network. So the roll-out is done by every single user himself/herself. This is very important, because only this makes it possible to grow the network almost endlessly without the need of having a huge administrative team to manage the network. Users in other places can start a network themselves once they know how to do this. Our meshing technology is a very important key issue to these kinds of organically growing infrastructures.

Maintenance and support services are also user contributed. We do organize this like in a Linux User Group. We offer regular meetings very locally. E.g. in Berlin we offer regular meetings once a week in the evenings in almost every district. These meeting works like a typical user group. People who have questions or problems can go there. They can ask their questions, and the person with the less skills needed to answer the questions is pleased to do so. If the question is more complicated, a more educated person is asked to answer. And only if it is even more complicated the _true experts_ are needed. This is a very important methodology to deal with local resources. Also people learn from the very beginning to tech and help each other. It also helps to educate the “experts” not to involve in every issue, but also to give other people a chance to help others and to learn more and more over time, so that they can become experts themselves one day.

There is another important issue I would like to address at this point. I know that many of the costs addressed above can not always be taken by the users in the local community themselves. But I think it’s a good way to try to help the others to get to own their own nodes (access points). Cause in the end it’s all about the ownership of the network. Our networks are owned by the users! So it will be very hard to sell them to a commercial entity to the good of only a few people who might have established some superpower within the local community. This is to protect the wealth that over time the community has built into the network. It also protects us from the laws which are addressed to network providers. As there is no single entity that runs the network, there is no legal body other than all the single users who are offering this service. At least here in Europe these people therefore are no service providers. As mentioned before, a service like e.g. Internet can be run as a different model on top of the network! This is a very important issue that I can not stress often enough!

So as I know that this model might not be adoptable so easily, you should find ways of how to realize this. One could be that the routers and other equipment are sold to the users with micro-credits. There might be other ways to solve this issue, but I am sure that you as local people will know much better than me how this issue could be solved.

I also want to tell you, that when we started this project, many people told us, that a user contributed network would not work at all, because someone would have to be the leader responsible for the whole network. It was very hard to defend the project against these inputs. But now, five years later, there are freifunk.net initiatives in very many different parts of Germany and also a growing number of freifunk-like projects out there in the world. In Berlin we have over a thousand nodes today and in many other cities and rural areas all over Germany people have adopted our model. It truly worked and works and grows from day to day!

A lot of words I have put here. I hope they are of any help. Many people in many places have this or a similar idea (like you!). And many of the people want to start their own local project with a local label. I think this is very good and it is very important to be as locally as possible. But on the long run you should also think of one label or website where you all gather your projects in your local language, including all the experience and ideas: a meta-website for all the free network projects in your country. This is very important to bundle your powers! This meta-site should link to all the local projects and it should also provide as much information as possible for people who want to start their own local initiative. Please get in touch with the others and try to encourage each other to start with all your ideas and get the things going! From my experience the success of a community-project is much more about social engineering than one might think!

Kindly,

Juergen

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