The definition of what defines a community wireless network is still in flux. Many different people and groups are trying to solve the problems in different ways. Approaches range from sharing out no-cost Internet access with stand-alone wireless hotspots to building city-wide wireless networks which are entirely separate from the Internet. Only time will tell what is the most effective approach to building a community wireless network.
Our ultimate aim is to create a concise definition of what the crucial characteristics of a community network are, in the meantime here is an outline of those that we feel are important to consider.
See also: The Pico Peering Agreement (or on GitHub), Adam Curry on WiFi Peering
In order for the network to remain open for all, it’s important to build agreements which allow traffic to pass freely over the network. Nodes in the network must pass all traffic regardless of origin, destination or content. It will be important to allow node owners to deal with abusive activity but whenever possible routing agreements should be as open as possible.
The barriers to gaining access must be kept as low as possible. In order to allow the network to grow where it’s needed bureaucratic and administrative requirements to join the network must be kept to a minimum. In general, all that should be required to join is to find someone that is already connected and make arrangements directly with them. This is very similar to the way the Internet originally grew.
Because volunteer labour will continue to be the core of these networks it’s important that require as little maintenance as possible. They should adapt to damage and restructuring as efficiently possible. Mesh networking has to potential to allow new nodes to be automatically be detected and integrated into the network, allow broken nodes to be automatically culled as well as routes through the network to be optimized on the fly.
As the network grows and begins to provide compelling value there will be efforts to control the network for personal gain. By making sure that ownership of the network is distributed across the community as a whole we can make it as difficult as possible for the network to be commandeered.
It’s important that we don’t get bogged down in discussions of how to make the network as reliable as possible. Adopting the principle of “best effort”, one of the principles that the Internet was built upon, means that the network is less encumbered and can grow more freely. It’s also important that we restrict how traffic can flow across the network as little as possible so we don’t fall into the trap of trying to control it ourselves.
In order to maximize the potential of the network, it is vital that there is true connectivity throughout the network. This means that any two hosts on the network should be able to directly contact each other without the help of a third party. This allows any device which is capable of joining the network to be capable of also acting as a server.
Fully Routable Addresses
It is true that a city-wide community network would have tremendous value without Internet connectivity, it’s value can only be enhanced by adding two-way connectivity to the Internet. Not only should wireless clients be able to get to the Internet, but the Internet should be able to get to the wireless clients. This opens up the new possibilities of being able to offer services worldwide from a device hosted on a community network.
It is inevitable that an open network will eventually experience abuse. The network should be architected in a way that limits the amount of damage that a single attack can cause. Due to the nature of wireless networks, there are some types of abuse that are impossible to protect against, but abuse in my neighbourhood shouldn’t affect traffic in yours.
Anonymous speech is one of the requirements of a free society. An open wireless network provides a perfect platform for us support this. It is important that we don’t allow the ability to speak anonymously to become marginalized as we build the network.
Building Use and Generating Content
The more people that use the network, the more people that have a vested interest in our continued existence. The generation of content which lives on the wireless network may be the key to building usage. The more useful we make the network and the more services that are available over the network the more resources we will have at our disposal to build the network.
Responsibility: Global and Local
Because community nodes are about communities and discussion, each node operator needs to take personal responsibility and each collection of nodes collective responsibility for understanding the kind of aggregate behaviour occurring over their nodes and net. Without identifying individuals or filtering or examine content, networks need mechanisms that prevent the spoiling of the commons while preserving individual and group rights. Because many kinds of network misuses and attacks are readily identified, a goal of community networking should be to develop tools to identify and automatically lockout known behaviour that disrupts the local and global community without penalizing any one individual or organization for the behaviour of individuals or groups outside their knowledge or control.