Government Technology

CUWiN: Wirelessing the Revolution with Open Source Mesh Wireless Technologies



November 1, 2006 By

Founded by coalition of wireless developers and community volunteers committed to providing low-cost, do-it-yourself, community-controlled alternatives to contemporary broadband models, CUWiN (the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network) has been developing free, open-source wireless mesh software since the turn of the millennium. Today, CUWiN is on the brink of revolutionizing broadband service provision and telecommunications infrastructure worldwide by creating extremely low-cost, easy-to-install broadband technologies that can cover everything from a single apartment building to an entire metropolitan region.

CUWiN's mission is to develop decentralized, community-owned networks that foster democratic cultures and local content. Through advocacy and a strong commitment to open-source technology, CUWiN supports organic networks that grow in tandem with the needs of the community. CUWiN maintains international and domestic partnerships with dozens of research institutions, not-for-profit organizations, community groups, businesses, universities, and government institutions.

To this end, CUWiN's mission is broken into three separate but interrelated parts: software research and development, wireless consulting and community education. In terms of R&D, CUWiN creates free, open-source, open-architecture software for mesh wireless networking.

CUWiNware is the project's flagship software, which utilizes wireless mesh protocols developed in-house along with standard networking protocols and open-source protocols from other projects. CUWiN provides expertise in developing and maintaining wireless networks for businesses, communities, and municipalities. Currently, CUWiN is involved with dozens of community and municipal networks both nationally and internationally. In addition to its more technical work, CUWiN is actively committed to educating the public about community wireless technology and telecommunications policy. Educational programs are available to anyone, including policymakers, community organizations, and educational institutions.

A Bit of History

On November 18, 2002, CUWiN's software allowed its first multi-hop, bandwidth-sharing wireless cloud to become operational. This created, for the first time, access to a single Internet connection from multiple locations over a half-kilometer area. Within two years, this technology became widely known as "mesh wireless." In 2003, CUWiN received an exploratory grant from the Threshold Foundation to buy equipment as a proof-of-concept for deployment in impoverished communities. The initial grant enabled CUWiN to double the number of nodes in its outdoor testbed network, allowing CUWiN to test new software improvements under real-world conditions.

In 2004 and 2005, CUWiN received major funding from the Information Program of the Open Society Institute to further develop its software as a model for transfer to other communities. CUWiN established a formal partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa to implement wireless networks in former townships. In July 2006, the National Science Foundation announced that it would award $500,000 to support research by CUWiN and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This funding will enable the CUWiN-UIUC partnership to develop a "Performance-Predictable Wireless Mesh Network" and focus on developing next-generation wireless routing protocols, network testing systems, and gateway discovery and multi-gateway support.

In August 2004, CUWiN hosted over two hundred technology experts, policy analysts, university researchers, and on-the-ground specialists deploying state-of-the-art community broadband projects in its birthplace of Champaign-Urbana, IL for the first National Summit for Community Wireless Networks. Participants discussed technology, policy and organizing issues as well as the practical solutions to problems facing community broadband.

The leaders of community broadband initiatives held participatory meetings and workshops to build a strategic plan for expanding the deployment of networks and lobbying the federal government to create policies that expand broadband access, open more unlicensed spectrum, and break the duopoly market power of cable and DSL. Since this initial gathering and its sequel in March 2006, community wireless networking has become an international phenomenon. Already, over 300 communities around the country are planning or building local wireless networks.

In addition to its work in Champaign-Urbana, CUWiN is helping to bring telecommunications infrastructure to under-served communities around the globe. For example, Mamelodi, South Africa, is a former township just outside of Pretoria. Due to Apartheid, Mamelodi has minimal telecommunications


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