BERLIN, Germany, 03 August 2006
The Djurslands International Institute of Rural Wireless Broadband (DIIRWB) is not joking about free information infrastructures. Its advocates study and plan projects, and then go out in the open field to help to start up wireless networks. But before antennas are glued to barns and receivers taped to posts, summer camp participants convened in rural Denmark for some fresh air. APCNews talked to one of them.
From July 1 to 8, “the Djurslands” held this summer camp in Friland, rural Denmark. About twenty people showed up from places as dispersed as Georgia, the UK, Germany and Tanzania. Plus some different local people who took part and came and went.
“This was a follow-up to the Freifunk conference hosted in Djurslands in 2004,” says Ian Macdonald, technician at APC’s UK member GreenNet. “It was really aimed at people who are interested in going home and setting up wireless networks,” he tells, only days after coming back from Denmark.
The California-born Macdonald is a seasoned traveller. He used to work for the US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Witness for Peace in Guatemala from 2000-2001 and in Mexico (2001-2003), before working at Laneta, APC’s member organisation in Mexico, until late last year.
The trade of the wireless enthusiasts
Wireless enthusiasts are a diverse crowd. But like Macdonald, who recognises himself as one of them, many engage in Freifunk  and other wireless encounters “because wireless internet offers great potential for community-driven projects that, (in turn) offer internet access to the wider community and to people who otherwise might not have access”.
1 Freifunk (German for “free broad or narrowcasters”) is a project that started in Berlin and spread to other European cities. It is using a particular organisational model, specific hardware and protocols.
The rationale is good, the field work even better. The weeklong 2006 summer camp was designed for thinkers and doers. All attendees where invited to give a hand in “networking Djursland”, an initiative where “rural radio links forming a wireless backbone, tap on connections to the optical fibre accesses,” as described on the DIIRWB’s website. This “hands-on” training is starting to become a tradition in the Djursland.
Since the year of 2003, a very cheap rural area radio-based data-network has been build by voluntary people in the villages all over Djursland, with more than 200 areas being covered. By now, it gives broadband internet access to more than 4,000 households, and is considered the biggest non-commercial wireless network in Europe.
Based on this accomplishment, DjurslandS.net’s was asked to host The Freifunk.net Summer Convention on the subject, and did that in September 2004.
200 participants from 32 countries around the world participated in the convention, and 100 of them stayed for a week to learn and contribute in workshops and to work with the volunteers of DjurslandS.net, building outdoor wireless networks.
After the convention, DjurslandS.net was asked by people from different parts of the world to establish an international institute, to make it possible to go to Djursland, to learn how to build cheap broadband access from rural areas.
The politics of the wireless geeks
“In cities, the telco sells each household a DSL line and a router/access point,” points out Macdonald. “It tells them that having an open network is a security risk and so people should not share their connections.” What happens in what Macdonald is explaining, is that each house has a DSL line and a wireless network, but those resources are not shared.
In rural areas, the situation is somewhat different, since access in general, especially in poorer regions, can be difficult. “I think wireless can prove to be a great way to provide connectivity to isolated or rural areas of the world,” states Macdonald, before adding “or it can come together and offer internet access as a public service, just like water, electricity, etc…”
Some would argue that water and electricity are increasingly being provided by private companies and in many places still, by state-run enterprises. Would the Freifunkers want to be affiliated to any of these? “No,” replies Macdonald, “they believe that the wireless network itself should be provided by the very people who want to use the network. Thus, the consumer is also the provider.”
Wireless models: between anarchy and central planning
Wireless geeks are currently working on setting up rural networks that may or may not follow a wireless model similar to the Freifunk one. Variations on that model would see the community offering in conjunction with the local government.
Technically as well, the rural and urban environments ask for some flexibility in the wireless model. “I think that a mesh model  works well where there are already many computers, high density. On the other hand, in a rural area or an area with few computer users, it probably has to be a centralized network.” As technical constraints appear in daylight, they might condition political decisions such as who to partner with.
2 Mesh networking is a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until a connection can be established. More information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesh_networking
John Kibuuka, of Tanzania (http://kjohnah.blogspot.com/), working for a development organisation, attended the summer camp, looking for inspiration in terms of wireless models. “He was interested in the possibility of providing internet access to schools and other computer centres in quite isolated areas of the country.” In some areas of Tanzania, there may not be stable electricity and Freifunkers would use solar panels and batteries to make the web work.
What makes the Djursland experience a specific type of model, is that it is community-driven, putting antennas on public buildings and on farmers’ old grain silos. “They give the farmer free internet access and pay for the electricity. The farmer just lets them put the antenna there,” mentions Macdonald. Another feature of their successful model is that there is a centralised administration and planning of the infrastructure.
And for those still wondering how this translated in terms of costs, most of the equipment used to set up the network is quite cheap. “A bit of tin, some wire and Styrofoam to build an antenna (to connect to a wireless access point) costs about 6 euros to make,” says Macdonald. The only more costly ingredient for the recipe to work is the transmitter.
There is no excuse not to attend the next big wireless conference in Northern India  this fall. With a number of projects going on in several regions at the moment, it will certainly be of great interest. The AirJaldi Summit 2006 will be held in Dharamsala, from October 22 to 25.
“I think that APC members have a very important role to play in promoting wireless networking. Training and workshops are quite important and they can be involved in promoting wireless networking in their regions/countries,” concludes Macdonald.