Commotion Wireless: Free and Open Way to Network

PHOTO: Commotion Wireless is a new open-source communications tool.
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With recent debates over openness on the Internet, and the emerging concept that you might not have the right to do what you want with your cellphone, 2013 looks to be a pivotal time for expanded technology rights.

Enter the Open Technology Institute, providers of a new project meant to help spread free and accessible wireless communication. They call themselves Commotion Wireless.

Sascha Meinrath, vice president and director of the Open Technology Institute, told ABC News that its open sourced wireless "mesh network" system can serve many purposes. "It can be used in places where there is no connectivity, where connectivity has gone down, or where there may be surveillance," Meinrath said.

"The main purpose is to provide lower-cost access to communications for any number of barriers that may interfere with that access," added Thomas Gideon of Commotion Wireless. "Centralized control of Internet access is one case, but we have also deployed the technology in emergency response scenarios and to provide alternate communications infrastructure for traditionally under-served communities." Gideon is the overseer of technical development for the project.

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A mesh network is created by connecting devices like computers and mobile phones through a "peer to peer" method -- meaning that instead of using an Internet service provider's connection through a Wi-Fi access point or cell tower, the devices are communicating with each other directly, free of any interference.

"At minimum, Commotion requires two or more Wi-Fi enabled devices, such as laptops, routers, or smartphones, to create a stand-alone network," Commotion says on its project's website. "New users may join an existing network using other Wi-Fi devices or standard GSM mobile phones."

The technology behind mesh networking isn't new -- in fact, Meinrath says he's been working with it for almost 13 years -- but Commotion Wireless is the first project of its kind to include GSM mobile phone frequencies. Meinrath says this is important because mobile phones are usually among the first technologies introduced in developing areas of the world.

The beta version of Commotion Wireless is set to launch this week and Meinrath was at the Freedom to Connect Conference Tuesday to discuss the importance of open-sourced methods of communication. "The free flow of communications is fundamental to democracy. Without it, you cannot have participatory democracy. What we're really working on is the next iteration of participatory democracy," Meinrath said in an interview with Democracy Now.

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The so-called Arab Spring in 2011, with mass protests in Egypt and elsewhere, was an example Meinrath used to display the perils of centrally-controlled ways of communication.

"In Egypt, you have a place where the Internet was actually shut down," Meinrath said. "The notion of being able to still communicate, use your cellphones to make phone calls locally, even if the cell towers are off, is really paramount. That use case is something that the technology actually helps solve... In essence, you would still be able to organize and share information in real time across the local folks that are there organizing and protesting."

Meinrath told ABC News that it's likely that some forms of mesh networking were being used during the protests in Egypt, but "what we're releasing now is more functional and user friendly."

Meinrath also said mesh networking is a technology at which the U.S. government once led, but because of blowback from Internet service providers, support has subsided. "Commotion is one of the last big open-sourced projects in the country," Meinrath said.

Internet service providers have never been crazy about the idea. Meinrath told ABC News that in 2005 he was among those volunteering efforts to get areas hit by Hurricane Katrina back online, and, by way of mesh networking, there was some success. However, as the Washington Post reported at the time, groups like BellSouth fought to have the free services taken down.

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Mesh networking technology has also had to answer "misinformation campaigns," spreading the idea that the technology doesn't work, according to Meinrath. To the naysayers, Meinrath cites to the example of guifi.net, a mesh network in Spain that currently spans over 35,000 km and has the capacity to accommodate "several hundreds of thousands" of users, he says.

Though it's not possible to access outside Web pages without the use of an Internet service provider, Commotion Wireless can handle files and communication among those users connected. "The idea is that absent an Internet gateway, communities can offer distributed, work-alike solutions such as email, media sharing, crowd sourced mapping, social messaging and more. [This week's new release version] includes support for packaging such applications so that they can be advertised over the mesh by those offering them and discovered by potential users from a browser or mobile phone," Gideon told ABC News.

Commotion Wireless released three preview builds last year, but this week's beta version will be the prelude to an eventual full release sometime this year, said Meinrath.

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