Government Technology

Freifunk: Germany's User-Run Network Explodes Beyond Its Borders

April 2, 2007 By

Juergen Neumann, the self-described geek who started it all.

Ask Juergen Neuman about what's new at Freifunk, and he will tell you; "it keeps growing." Probe him further for exact numbers, and the founder of this do-it-yourself wireless Internet community in Germany, draws a blank. "It is growing so fast that I can't rattle the numbers off-the-cuff," he says. "But I can tell you that it is the largest user-contributed mesh network in the world today."

That's Freifunk, a non-commercial open initiative to support free radio networks that began in 2003 in Berlin and is now globally regarded as one of the most successful projects of its kind. The most significant feature of this network is that it is a volunteer-run initiative that is not trying to be simply a wireless service provider. Rather, it seeks to enable local districts, villages and regions to set up their own mesh infrastructure.

"It is community effort where everyone is a contributor," says Juergen. "The idea is to spread knowledge about building free and open wireless community networks in collaboration with existing groups and organizations."

The initiative is based on the concept of an 'open public local access network' (OPLAN), developed by Malcolm Matson, the pioneer of broadband in the United Kingdoms who established Europe's first all-fiber network, COLT telecom. Adhering with OPLAN's philosophy, Freifunk aims not only to provide technical and general information about open wireless networks, but also seeks to help individuals and organizations raise public consciousness about freedom of information and communication. The idea is that this will enable others to build and maintain their own networks, and above all else, will help to create new social communities.

Every active user (each node owner) in Freifunk has to buy his/her access point. These access points are mostly Linux based distribution (Linksys WRT54GL or Buffalo Turbo G) hardware that runs on Freifunk-developed firmware. This firmware is also open source that can be freely downloaded from the Internet. "Many regional Freifunk groups offer support for this," says Juergen, adding that this means that if a new node owner in a loop is stuck, there will be many to provide voluntary help.

Set-up costs for a node are minimal. "It is within everybody's means," says Ingo Rau, co-founder of the initiative. Buying necessary equipment (antennas and the modem) will rarely exceed a hundred Euros. Such hardware provides a basic configuration that can cover a distance of about 200 to 300 meters. This usually is "good enough for any community," adds Rau. And if needed, for a little extra money (about 40 Euros) the coverage area can be extended to cover as much as 30 kilometers for line-of-sight antennas. The equipment is "power efficient," requiring just about 5 to 6 watt of electricity per day.

In essence, Freifunk is an Intranet through which members offer a gateway to the Internet. The firmware automatically detects an Internet gateway and "announces" it to the rest of the network. If there are several gateways to the Internet available, the routing software will automatically choose the best gateway. The firmware also offers traffic-shaping features. With the gateway plug-in, each network participant owning and offering the Internet access can decide how much of his bandwidth would be offered up to the Intranet.

"As in most parts of Europe, Internet is offered at a flat rate around about 20 Euros per month (for 2-16 Mbit/s) many just donate part of their unused bandwidth towards the Intranet," says Juergen.

However, "Access to the Internet is just one of the services available in the Freifunk network," says Juergen. All sharing this network can freely exchange any data -- files, chat, VoIP, etc. -- with relatively high bandwidth, up to 20 Mbit/sec. at 802.11g. And even though the basic tenet of Freifunk is free

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