The Digital Divide Problem
Many people, even in developed urban areas, do not have access to the Internet. Addiitionally, most Internet access is subject to control by Internet service providers, which are often local mon- or duopolies. People, especially those in low-income communities, need access to either the global Internet or alternative methods of local networking and communication.
Mesh networking could allow communities to build their own networks without the need to invest in substantial physical infrastructure. Local mesh wireless networks can lower the cost of Internet access, make communication less subject to centralized control, and bring communities closer together. Freifunk, Funkfeuer, and the Athens Wireless are major mesh networking projects whose largest networks, in Germany, Austria, and Greece respectively, span miles and provide access to thousands of members.
Wireless Networks in the Developing World is a free e-book about creating low-cost wireless networks. The Meraka Institute has published a do-it-yourself guide to setting up a Freifunk network. Jonathan Baldwin, a design student at Parsons, has written extensively on a community wireless project in Brooklyn, as well as the pitfalls and potential of such projects generally. An active community on the Reddit r/darknetplan subreddit often discusses community wireless plans.
There are many dedicated mesh routers available that use open protocols, such as the Mesh Potato, many commercial mesh routers that use proprietary protocols, such as Meraki, and some routers, such as Apple’s AirPort, that implement highly limited versions of mesh networking. Additionally, many ordinary routers can be configured, using DD-WRT or Freifunk firmware, to support mesh networking protocols such as OLSR or B.A.T.M.A.N. Most computers can theoretically support mesh networking, although ordinary wireless cards are not necessarily optimized for it. Mobile phones typically do not support mesh networking natively, although some mesh networking software can be installed on “rooted” or “jailbroken” phones.
Most mesh networking protocols do not have up-to-date clients available for most devices. For example, only a few protocols have client software available in Mac and Windows; those that do, such as OLSR, do not have up-to-date GUIs. The Commotion project, as well as OLSR’s own development team, have focused on bringing these clients up to date for OLSR and developing usable installers and GUIs that make configuration much easier.
Most successful and stable community wireless projects have been in Europe. Several high-profile American projects have sprung up recently. The Free Network Foundation has begun to establish mesh networks at Occupy protests using portable radio towers.