Enter Joseph Bonicioli.
According to Mother Jones magazine, Bonicioli uses the same kind of Internet as you and I; he uses a regular service provider in order to get online. But, the magazine says, when he wants to talk to friends and neighbors in Athens, Greece, “he’s also got something much weirder and more interesting; a private, parallel Internet.”
‘It’s like a whole other web’
From Mother Jones:
He and his fellow Athenians built it. They did so by linking up a set of rooftop wifi antennas to create a “mesh,” a sort of bucket brigade that can pass along data and signals. It’s actually faster than the Net we pay for: Data travels through the mesh at no less than 14 megabits a second, and up to 150 Mbs a second, about 30 times faster than the commercial pipeline I get at home. Bonicioli and the others can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet. And it’s a pretty big group of people: Their Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network has more than 1,000 members, from Athens proper to nearby islands. Anyone can join for free by installing some equipment.
“It’s like a whole other web,” Bonicioli said. “It’s our network, but it’s also a playground.”
The mesh has become a decent-sized social hub as well. There are blogs, a Craigslist imitator, and discussion forums, among other features. Some members have held “movie nights” where one member streams a flick and scores tune in to watch.
There is a heap of local culture – so much that mesh members have even configured their own mini-Google to help each other find things.
“It changes attitudes,” Bonicioli says. “People start sharing a lot. They start getting to know someone next door – they find the same interests; they find someone to go out and talk with.”
Some have even fallen in love after meeting on the mesh.
What’s more, the Athenians aren’t alone. More from Mother Jones:
Scores of communities worldwide have been building these roll-your-own networks – often because a mesh can also be used as a cheap way to access the regular internet. But along the way people are discovering an intriguing upside: Their new digital spaces are autonomous and relatively safe from outside meddling. In an era when governments and corporations are increasingly tracking our online movements, the user-controlled networks are emerging as an almost subversive concept.
“When you run your own network,” Bonicioli explains, “nobody can shut it down.”
The magazine describes these meshes as resembling a food cooperative; members number-crunch and figure out they can solve Internet infrastructure needs on their own for a fraction of the cost of a regular phone-line, cable or satellite driven system.
More reliable – and private – communication
Isaac Wilder of Kansas City, co-founder of the Free Network Foundation, is using this Internet co-op model to wire neighborhoods where the average household income is just over $10,000 a year. To pay for access, Wilder’s organization partners with others in the community; he then constructs a mesh anyone can join for a small fee.
“The margins on most internet providers are so ridiculously inflated,” he says. “When people see the price they get from the mesh, they’re like, ‘Ten bucks a month? Oh, shit, I’ll pay that!'”
There are other uses for meshes as well – some of them sinister or politically motivated. They can give terrorists a cleaner way to communicate; but they can also enable political activism in places where such activism can get you jailed or worse.
“As activism has become increasingly reliant on social networking, repressive regimes have responded by cutting off internet access. When Hosni Mubarak, for instance, discovered that protesters were using Facebook to help foment dissent, he ordered the state-controlled ISPs to shut down Egypt’s internet for days,” Mother Jones reported.
Chinese authorities have similarly cut off Internet service to stifle anti-government activism.