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run command free networks - a reality check


rc runcom (as in .cshrc or /etc/rc)

The rc command derives from the runcom facility
from the MIT CTSS system, ca. 1965. From Brian
Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie, as told to Vicki

"There was a facility that would execute a bunch
of commands stored in a file; it was called
runcom for "run commands", and the file began
to be called "a runcom". rc in Unix is a fossil
from that usage."

Note: The name of the shell from the Plan 9
operating system is also rc.


Introduction: Free Networks

Over the last few years loosely connected groups all over the world have started to build free networks, networks which are owned and maintained by their users and are largely free of state and corporate influence. This fledgling free network movement is not one coherent group, campaign or strategy, but another one of those multitudes, a free association of individuals who work together for a common goal under a loose umbrella of a few principles and with a lot of enthusiasm. Free networks try to build large scale networks following a bottom-up grassroots approach by using DIY technology (homemade antennas, second hand hardware, free software) and suggesting decentral self-organisation as preferred organisational model. There is no single entity that plans and builds the network. Instead groups promote the suggestion that people share bandwidth and organically grow a network by (wirelessly) connecting their local nodes.

This can be achieved with a number of technologies but recently the technology of choice became 802.11, a family of wireless ethernet standards developed by the IEEE which is incorporated in many mass market networking products such as wlan network cards and chipsets. Hardware prices have fallen dramatically over the last few years thanks to the commercial boom in wireless data networking technology. Radio Networking brings together two powerful technologies, innovative wireless transmission technologies such as spread spectrum and computer networking technology. 802.11 is an open standard which is an important advantage for the free network movement. It means that free software can run on most proprietary hardware platforms as long as the protocol has been properly implemented. It also works well with embedded Linux chips and with older computers running some free Unix version. Networking across different platforms but based on open standards has been the success formula of the internet, a story repeating itself with 802.11.

The vision of Free Networks as expressed by Consume, London, one of the ideologically most influential groups, is to apply the peer-to-peer principle known from file sharing networks to the underlying physical material layer of network communications. Consume proposed in 2000 that a wireless 'meshed network' should be built, a highly distributed network where each node is connected to many other nodes and no node is in a central or priviliged position. The owners of nodes are legally independent from each other and arrange the traffic of data across the net by following the minimal requirements of the Pico Peering Agreement - a framework for owners of nodes to establish connections and formulate the rules that govern them.

Meshed Networks, understood as a network topology, can be built in a number of ways. But recently a kind of geeky buzz has surrounded 'mobile ad-hoc networking'. Bleeding edge mobile ad-hoc networking protocols such as mobile mesh and aodv are seen as the key to a bottom-up wireless utopia. Companies sympathetic to the free network movements have started to build mesh networking hard- and software solutions - notably the Locustworld Meshbox and 4G-Systems' Mesh Cube. Those solutions, custom made for wireless peer-to-peer networking on an ad-hoc basis, should make it easier also for technical non-experts to participate in a wirless free network. But the technology has also created a semi-utopian notion. If ad-hoc network technology gets implemented in mass market mobile devices (handsets, PDAs), everybody who carries such a device becomes a walking personal telco. Dynamic, self healing routing software and computer controled radio would always find the nearest working node within range and use it to pass on information. If this approach gets enough support it could in the long run lead to a world without telecommunications providers and the people would truly become the network.

The success of 802.11, the notion of ad-hoc mesh networking and the advanced radio technologies developed in this context had also a knock-on effect in the policy arena. 'Open Spectrum' advocates such as Dewayne Hendricks say that the way the spectrum is regulated now is based on outdated premises. Instead of sweeping regulation that assigns a frequency band to one user across a nation more parts of the spectrum should become license exempt (like the ISM band where 802.11 works). Software controlled radio can avoid interference and 'regulation' can be left to smart networking devices rather than the state. If such an approach was adopted scarcity of bandwidth was a thing of the past.

Since their inception a few years ago free networks have come a long way. In areas of great urban density free networkers have built open access points covering public areas (NYCWireless). Other groups such as Consume and Free2air in London have focused on the meshed network idea and have built small but growing clusters of interconnected nodes. Open access wireless network strategies have been adopted for rural areas which otherwise find it hard to get access to broadband internet due to market conditions. The free network approach has also been successfully tried and tested in developing countries. Now that the idea is out of the box and the vision gradually gets implemented in reality, it is time for a free networks reality check. Is there a set of principles that lets free networks successfully grow, a 'startegy' (no typing mistake) as Consume would say? And what are the obstacles? Wide area wireless community networks are still more fiction than reality and the movement is based, by and large, on the goodwill and activism of networking enthusiasts (serious geeks). Is it just a revamp of earlier ideas of internet egalitarianism, such as citizen networks and digital cities? Or is there more to it? Is there a potential that free networks might change the way the world thinks about telecommunications and could it trigger a similar paradigm shift as free software has in the field of software development?

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