Freie Netze
Armin Medosch

Free Networks


In London, New York City, San Francisco and increasingly also in Berlin,
Vienna and Zurich, wireless community networks flourish. Using a
technology called WLAN (based on the 802.11 family of protocols) people
started to create their own network infrastructures which facilitate
broadband internet communications at comparatively low cost. In Great
Britain alone there are now approximately 3000 wireless nodes which are
offered for public access and participation for free by wireless network
enthusiasts. With data rates faster than 3G mobile telephony, people can
use their laptops for high bandwidth applications such as file sharing,
voice over IP and videostreaming. The rapid growth of wireless community
networks has led some to forecast the death of the telecommunications
industry as we know it.

Armin Medosch avoids such speculations and describes the development
of wireless community networks in the city, on the countryside and in
developing countries from a close-up perspective. These chapters about
actual ongoing projects form the core of the book. During his research he
became enmeshed in wireless activities himself, started to use the
technology at home and helped to organise the BerLon workshop in Berlin
in 2002. Through interviews with leading advocates of free networking he
gets down to some of the core questions: What are the motivations, what
has been achieved, what are the goals for the near future? Written in an
accessible and informative style, the book does not shy away from complex
subject matters such as the implications for spectrum regulation policy or
the relations between free network, free hardware and free software.The
concluding chapters cover historical parallels such as the BBS scene of the
1980ies or the Digital Cities of the 1990ies, the implications for freedom of
speech and media freedom.



The book is divided in 4 main chapters.

1 The first chapter covers basics of the technology, the history of its
development, the regulatory situation and the general economic situation
in telecommunications. A short article is dedicated to the "communication
model of network freedom", an analytical approach to defining the "free" in
free networks.
2 The second chapter covers the actual ongoing projects. The first article
tells the history of Consume, a leading project of free network advocacy.
The second chapter reports about East End Net, an initiative in East
London where groups such as and ambientTV.NET live, work
and experiment. Other articles in this chapter show that also cables can be
used to build free networks, how wireless technologies can be of use on
the countryside or in developing countries.
3 The third chapter covers areas of overlap between technology and
politics. Out of the international free network movement grew attempts at
lobbying governments for further spectrum deregulation and of
formulating a social contract between free network owners (Pico Peering
4 The fourth and last chapter covers the implication for free communication
and media freedom. It tells a short cultural history of free networks,
community radio and network media activism.


[The following texts are not translations but English texts that draw on the
same research and paraphrase some key topics of the book.] From "London.ZIP"
Backspace existed in close proximity to a number of new media companies.
Internet bandwidth was then very expensive and only businesses could
afford a permanent high-bandwidth connection through a leased dedicated
line. James Stevens, founder of Backspace, convinced his former
colleagues in commercial website construction to share their 512k
connection. Through this shared connection, Backspace enabled young
artists to create their own internet-based works and experiment with audio
and video live streaming over the internet. Live streaming from home was
unthinkable at the time, no one could afford it. Backspace was run as a
shared resource. The users were responsible for the maintenance and
upkeep of infrastructure. People could go there to learn new programming
tricks and share ideas about net art. Backspace also hosted small
conferences and presentations of artists‚ work. Among the people who
used Backspace for work, presentation and collaboration were Rachel
Baker, Manu Luksch (later founder of ambientTV.NET), media art curator
Ilze Black, Heath Bunting, Gio D'Angelo, Pete Gomes, Lisa Haskel and
many more. The vibrancy of the place became well known across the
networked scenes of Europe and further afield, while locally it soon became
a focal point of the early net art scene.
Just across the road from Backspace‚s home in Winchester Wharf, a few
more artists and new media businesses located in Clink Street Studios also
wanted to participate in the sharing of precious bandwidth. But the
Telecommunications Act of 1984 prohibited it from throwing a cable across
the narrow street to connect with Backspace‚s local network. Julian Priest,
then technical director of the company Mediumrare, suggested a wireless
solution. The technology now known as Wi-Fi or Wavelan was used to
establish a connection between the two buildings. About a hundred
bandwidth-hungry users spread over two buildings shared the benefits of
a high speed local network with a gateway to the internet. Creativity, art
and new media business flourished in this little corner of Southwark. As we
will see, it was this local experience of the power of wireless that would
later encourage James Stevens and Julian Priest to launch the wireless
community network project, Consume.
In the summer of 2000 Julian Priest and James Stevens wrote a text that
described their ideas for a free network, a network that would be built and
maintained by its users. They suggested the use of wireless network
technology based on the 802.11 family of standards developed by the
Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to jump over the local
loop and create neighborhood networks outside the commercial provider
model. Local networks would wirelessly connect to each other and thereby
create an ever growing free network cloud of data. Inside this cloud users
would enjoy the benefits of a high-bandwidth connection without having
to pay fees to owners of cables such as BT. File-sharing, gaming, audio-
visual media and communications experiments of all kinds would blossom
within the free network. At the same time the network would be connected
at its borders to the worldwide internet. Those in posession of a
broadband connection would share it with other users for the mutual
benefit of all. Priest/Stevens gave their idea of a network co-operative the
suggestive name, Consume. Without wasting any time Consume
immediately started to build components of the proposed network and
organise workshops, the Consume Clinics, where people interested in the
Œfreenetwork‚ idea would meet, discuss ways of developing the network, or
actually build the hardware needed to process wireless internet traffic ˆ
antennas, routers and access points.
Consume got a phenomenal response from the press. While media
accounts of the rise of wireless internet had been completely dominated by
pieces on the practice of Œwar-driving‚ ˆ that is, the siphoning off of
bandwidth from unprotected (and often corporate) wireless networks for
personal use ˆ Consume managed to transform that perception. From The
Guardian to the BBC to The Wall Street Journal major media outlets
reported the irresistable growth of wireless community networks in
London, New York City and even Seattle. This in turn mobilised many more
people to get involved with the growing movement. Consume built a
database with a visualisation tool, the Consume NodeDB (node data base)
where owners of wireless networks could register their nodes with their
exact geographical location and access details. From a few nodes in the
year 2000, this database has grown to more than 3000 entries in 2003.
The Consume idea had legs and the notion of the freenetwork was picked
up by many people and carried into different directions. Meanwhile,
Consume refused to become a legal entity for the official representation of
community networks. They insisted that only decentralised uptake of the
idea and self-organised network development could guarantee that it
remained uncompromised by bureaucratisation or commercialisation. An
official Consume organisation could become a target for legal action or
takeover attempts. A decentralised network built on consensus between
many independent owners of small network fragments was the favoured
model. The network should grow in the same way that a tune is ˆ
collectively ˆ invented and developed in musical free improvisation.

East End Net

Consume was very successful as a catalyst for ideas and in helping
interested people to find each other. Since December 2000 a wireless free
network called had existed in Bethnal Green, East London. Run
by Adam Burns, a.k.a. vortex, free2air had been launched without
knowledge of the existence of Consume but was based on a similar set of
ideas. Free2air has the longest running open and freely accessible wireless
node in London and possibly Europe.
Meanwhile, down the road in Brick Lane, in 2001 Mute Magazine started
You Are Here (YAH), a wireless project inspired by Consume but taking
the idea further into the realm of local networking. YAH wanted to use the
wireless community networks to the benefit of their immediate area. In
order to be able to connect to a node one needs to be physically close to it.
There was an assumption that users of wireless nodes, in this case in East
London, would also live and work in proximity to each other and possibly
had other things to share as well as bandwidth. The YAH website, based
on a Wiki ˆ a web-based system for collaborative publishing ˆ would
enable people to put themselves on the (virtual) map and start a local barter
economy of goods, skills and resources.
Back in Bethnal Green, audio-visual content creators and net artists
ambientTV.NET had been aware of the possibilities of wireless technology
for a while. When they moved into the neighbourhood of free2air their
interest‚ turned into activity. Two workshops at ambientTV.NET’s studio
are well remembered because they brought many free networkers together
ˆ You Are Here, free2air and Consume ˆ but also other individuals who
officially belonged to neither of these groups but worked with them on a
project basis. At these workshops some of the main components were
created that would soon connect ambientTV.NET with free2air and a
number of other studios who were (and still are) housed in the same
building. This network, the nucleus of an East End Net, is one of the most
active wireless communities so far and has provided the infrastructure for
media art experiments such as ambientTV.NET’s series of Telejams‚ and
Kaffe Matthews‚ project Radio Cycle‚ part of the Interference public art
programme in summer 2003.

The following text is an excerpt from "My personal journey with free
networks", a talk given at the Freifunk Summer Convention. This part
describes the communication model of network freedom.

For my talk at the Open Cultures Conference in June in Vienna I developed
a kind of communication model of network freedom. It is a layered model:
At the bottom is the layer of network freedom - that is the freedom to build
those networks on a physical and material level. As with anything in
society there are many aspects that affect this freedom. One is the
availability of technology, another one the availability of free spectrum.
We should try to lobby the regulation authority to make more free
spectrum available.

On the next level there is the freedom of access. Access is also defined by
a number of sub-categories. One quite clearly is price or affordability;
another one is technological skills; a very important one is availability;
large numbers of the population do not even have the chance of getting
broadband internet at all because they live on the countryside or are
affected by negligence of the incumbents. The telcos sell us short. They
run up huge profits by selling us short. Just two examples here. Today,
only 3% of fibre optical cables are actually used. If the free market was
really free and not completely rigged and stitched up that would mean that
bandwidth should actually be almost for free. According to principles of
capitalism if there is no scarcity of a resource it should be free. Clearly,
there is something wrong with how the market operates and the politicians
should start to take notice. And today I just learned that the Danish Telco
is making a profit of around 350 Euros per citizen per year. Such profits are
obscene, especially if you consider that they refuse to provide ADSL to
rural communities. By the way, in England there is an interesting initiative
that tries to challenge that ADSL can be called broadband at all. A group
from the north of England, EdenFaster, tries to challenge in court that BT
should not be allowed to advertise its ADSL products as broadband. Real
broadband, they say, starts with 2 Mbits symmetrically.
Free Networks have the strongest arguments on those two more basic
layers, the physical material and the access layer. But they can also play an
important role on higher levels.

The third layer is the freedom to communicate - to communicate with whom
I want what I want, free of restrictions of gatekeepers and of surveillance
ambitions of governements; we should be able to use wichever network
protocol is out there and be able to invent our own protocols. This is
essentially the expression of freedom of speech in network based
communications. This freedom is under threat from many sides currently in
the war against terrorism as well as in the war on file-sharing and the many
other wars our societies are leading against themselves.
The fourth layer is the layer of media freedom - that we can use these
networks not only as individuals to communicate but also as collective
means of exerting our right of freedom of speech. Media freedom has been
delegated to the television moguls and the state run television and radio
corporations. Large parts of society are not represented by this type of
media freedom. The net promised to improve this situation but also in this
regard we have seen a big regression in the last few years. The promises of
an open networked society are still worthwile but will not be delivered by
Bertelsmann, Murdoch or Berlusconi.



armin [at]