It may seem like the internet has conquered the whole world today. But that is not the case: despite smartphones and Google Loon, 4 billion people are still offline worldwide.
The founder of the US-American X-Lab and Open Technology Institute Sascha Meinrath sees this as a disadvantage for all internet users. The more people there are online and producing content, he says, the more all users profit. And it would be so easy to provide access to the net for everyone: Sascha has developed a technology called Commotion, where one single internet-ready device is enough to create a network that would guarantee a number of people access to the internet.
Commotion rose to fame in the USA with Hurricane Sandy in 2012: After the storm took out all the internet and telephone lines in New York, Commotion was the only communication network still up and running in the city. Why? Because the technology behind Commotion allows devices to directly connect to one other without going through a centralised point. We talked with Sascha about the great potential of Commotion:
Commotion offers a rather simple service: If you have at least one device that is connected to the internet, the software allows you to connect it to other devices which can share this internet access through their wifi receivers. Isn’t it a bit similar to the hotspot app Apple offers iPhones users?
Yes, but there are even more options. You can have more devices connected to the internet too. Or there may be no device connected to the internet at all – then you can set-up a local area network and use different services and applications on this network.
On a local network like that, I could share my files with the other people on the network, but I couldn’t access Facebook or Twitter – right?
Correct. It is somehow similar to many office networks where people share a printer or a file server. You can use these local Commotion networks as texting, telephone or video streaming platforms without any internet connection. The internet is just one of many incredibly useful applications you can use.
Do I need any additional hardware to create a Commotion network?
No, it’ll run on any common smartphone, or computer. Since the devices on the Commotion networks are connected via their wireless access points, they have to at least be internet-ready devices or devices with Wi-Fi access. This applies even if you don’t want to use the Commotion network to access the internet.
So this means that I could not connect an ordinary phone to the network?
Yes: to run the software itself, you need at least a smartphone. But with this one smartphone you can set up a cellular network that gives ordinary phones access to text messaging and free telephony. Although in that case you would need some extra equipment to build a cellular tower.
To give us a more hands-on idea: What is Commotion mainly used for?
The main reason people use Commotion is low-cost connectivity. We offer very cheap hardware and free software, which enables you to share access capacity – and thereby dramatically drops the costs of being online.
Can you give us an example? Maybe a network you favour?
I really like the network in Tunisia, for example. It integrates many applications – a civic-portal, local chat rooms and a local version of French and Arabic Wikipedia. It steps in when the sporadic internet connection breaks down, and then serves more than 7,000 people. And I like the conference networks that we’ve built for events and summits – you can set them up in a few hours; that’s pretty cool.
You have been working on developing and improving Commotion for about 15 years now. Why is it so important for you to bring connectivity to the people?
I view telecommunication infrastructure as a potentially empowering technology. Commotion enables anyone to own, operate, build and control these systems. At the moment, you and I, we enjoy the benefits of having access to digital sources. But for the majority of humans, this is not the case. We’re in danger of creating a huge divide. We need both different business models and technologies to bring meaningful connectivity to these 4 billion people. I see Commotion as one way to accomplish this goal.
X-Lab has received a multi-million-dollar grant from the US State Department and from USAID for the development and implementation of Commotion. What was the government’s aim in supporting you?
USAID is quite interested in increasing the uptake of Commotion technology in developing countries.
Where has Commotion been deployed so far?
Commotion is used almost everywhere: There are networks in India, Somalia, Detroit and NYC. We don’t know the exact numbers, because we purposely don’t track them, but there are tens of thousands users worldwide.
That’s really impressive. How did you get in touch with users in Somalia, for instance?
It was them who contacted us after having read a story about us in the press. They wanted to use Commotion for an educational campus located in a very rural area of Somalia. With a local area network, they wanted to grant access to their servers from every building on the campus. We shipped them some wireless devices and they set up the network by themselves. They even invited other houses in the village to connect, so they could access the educational resources of the campus.
"There are Commotion networks in India, Somalia, Detroit and NYC."
The use of Commotion must be pretty different in New York. What are people using it for?
The NYC network serves 5,000-7,000 residents in the Red Hook neighbourhood in Brooklyn. We installed it as a test for the main software, but it quickly became famous: When Superstorm Sandy hit, the Commotion network was the only telecommunications infrastructure still working in NYC. Even FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave us bandwidth because we were the only network that was operational.
Now we use this network for our “digital stewards” programme run by the Red Hook initiative. We train local youths who have no prior technical expertise to build and develop these networks in order to teach them digital literacy and telecommunications skills.
Do you think that digital illiteracy is a problem in the US?
It is a huge problem! We’re a technologically advanced society, and if youngsters don’t learn these skills at school, they’ll have a huge disadvantage.
So in your view, increasing connectivity is as important for Somalia as it is for certain neighbourhoods in Brooklyn?
Connectivity is a universal need, as it means access to educational, health, and economic resources. And yes, this is as important in my own backyard as it is in the slums of Bangalore – which I actually just visited last week.
Why did you visit the slums particularly?
I met up with locals who run truly amazing computer centres in the slums. For instance, they teach people how to type so that they can get a job. One of the slums was directly beneath the headquarters of IBM. That was pretty shocking: There is this glass and stone, 21st century visionary building of IBM directly adjoining one of the poorest communities in the world.
Wouldn’t this be one of the places where Commotion network could serve?
Of course! The IBM building has huge access capacity, and certainly doesn’t use all of it. It wouldn’t take much to share about 5% of this access capacity with the slum next door. And that would transform the lives of thousands of people living within 1 kilometre around that building.
"That would transform the lives of thousands of people."
Have you ever asked IBM to do that?
I could do that. But it would be much more powerful if people from Bangalore did it – and if they’d spread the idea: Imagine the impact if thousands of different community organisations around the world would ask this favour of the big companies in their towns! Then the idea would really scale. That’s why I think that these technologies have to be owned and operated by local communities.
What distance can a Commotion network cover?
The next Wi-Fi link shouldn’t be more than 30 kilometres away. But most of the networks in place are much denser: there is usually one node per city block.
Considering that a network can bridge several kilometres, it could even establish an over-the-border connection to neighbouring countries. This might be helpful when autocratic governments shut down the internet, as happened in Egypt in 2011 for example. Has Commotion ever been used in such a case?
Yes, it has been used, but I can’t talk about the specific instances. It is definitively a very powerful technology.
How about privacy: Is it possible to access the network from the outside?
That’s definitely not easy - you’d have to hack into a fairly secure system. But of course Commotion itself is not a safety bullet. We always recommend that people use additional security mechanisms and we offer special encryption systems. A well encrypted Commotion network is a lot more secure than most other wireless networks.
Commotion is not the only mesh wireless network around. How does it differ from other similar projects?
Most other open source mesh networks are developed by friends and allies of ours, as we work together with folks from all over the globe. I’d see Commotion as an umbrella system: It is highly extensible and modular, so that if somebody develops a new and better technology, we can just swap that into the overall package.
If I want to build my own network: how can I access Commotion?
You can download it right now from www.commotionwireless.net and set up a network with your neighbours. It’s completely free and open source.