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CUWiN: Wirelessing the Revolution with Open Source Mesh Wireless Technologies

After the National Science Foundation awarded $500,000 to support research by CUWiN and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we asked Digital Communities contributor, Sascha Meinrath, to explain what they were doing. This is the first in an ongoing series that will focus on under-the-radar, cutting-edge alternative technologies which can serve many different community needs.

by / November 1, 2006
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Founded by coalition of wireless developers and community volunteers committed to providing low-cost, do-it-yourself, community-controlled alternatives to contemporary broadband models, CUWiN (the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network) has been developing free, open-source wireless mesh software since the turn of the millennium. Today, CUWiN is on the brink of revolutionizing broadband service provision and telecommunications infrastructure worldwide by creating extremely low-cost, easy-to-install broadband technologies that can cover everything from a single apartment building to an entire metropolitan region.

CUWiN's mission is to develop decentralized, community-owned networks that foster democratic cultures and local content. Through advocacy and a strong commitment to open-source technology, CUWiN supports organic networks that grow in tandem with the needs of the community. CUWiN maintains international and domestic partnerships with dozens of research institutions, not-for-profit organizations, community groups, businesses, universities, and government institutions.

To this end, CUWiN's mission is broken into three separate but interrelated parts: software research and development, wireless consulting and community education. In terms of R&D, CUWiN creates free, open-source, open-architecture software for mesh wireless networking.

CUWiNware is the project's flagship software, which utilizes wireless mesh protocols developed in-house along with standard networking protocols and open-source protocols from other projects. CUWiN provides expertise in developing and maintaining wireless networks for businesses, communities, and municipalities. Currently, CUWiN is involved with dozens of community and municipal networks both nationally and internationally. In addition to its more technical work, CUWiN is actively committed to educating the public about community wireless technology and telecommunications policy. Educational programs are available to anyone, including policymakers, community organizations, and educational institutions.

A Bit of History
On November 18, 2002, CUWiN's software allowed its first multi-hop, bandwidth-sharing wireless cloud to become operational. This created, for the first time, access to a single Internet connection from multiple locations over a half-kilometer area. Within two years, this technology became widely known as "mesh wireless." In 2003, CUWiN received an exploratory grant from the Threshold Foundation to buy equipment as a proof-of-concept for deployment in impoverished communities. The initial grant enabled CUWiN to double the number of nodes in its outdoor testbed network, allowing CUWiN to test new software improvements under real-world conditions.

In 2004 and 2005, CUWiN received major funding from the Information Program of the Open Society Institute to further develop its software as a model for transfer to other communities. CUWiN established a formal partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa to implement wireless networks in former townships. In July 2006, the National Science Foundation announced that it would award $500,000 to support research by CUWiN and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This funding will enable the CUWiN-UIUC partnership to develop a "Performance-Predictable Wireless Mesh Network" and focus on developing next-generation wireless routing protocols, network testing systems, and gateway discovery and multi-gateway support.

In August 2004, CUWiN hosted over two hundred technology experts, policy analysts, university researchers, and on-the-ground specialists deploying state-of-the-art community broadband projects in its birthplace of Champaign-Urbana, IL for the first National Summit for Community Wireless Networks. Participants discussed technology, policy and organizing issues as well as the practical solutions to problems facing community broadband.

The leaders of community broadband initiatives held participatory meetings and workshops to build a strategic plan for expanding the deployment of networks and lobbying the federal government to create policies that expand broadband access, open more unlicensed spectrum, and break the duopoly market power of cable and DSL. Since this initial gathering and its sequel in March 2006, community wireless networking has become an international phenomenon. Already, over 300 communities around the country are planning or building local wireless networks.

In addition to its work in Champaign-Urbana, CUWiN is helping to bring telecommunications infrastructure to under-served communities around the globe. For example, Mamelodi, South Africa, is a former township just outside of Pretoria. Due to Apartheid, Mamelodi has minimal telecommunications infrastructure. Using CUWiN's technology, Mamelodi's residents were able to "leapfrog" over an entire generation of expensive, wire-line infrastructure in a matter of months. The Mesa Grande Reservation in Southern California does not have cell phone, cable, or even postal service because it is considered "too remote." CUWiN's technology is being implemented today, with the help of Tribal Digital Village, to bring broadband Internet services and computers to every home on the Reservation.

CUWiN's technologies are curently in Beta testing, but are available for free download from their website, www.cuwin.net. Already, numerous municipalities and community groups are helping pilot CUWiN's technology, and CUWiN is actively looking for additional communities interested in implementing and test-piloting the Beta software and supporting the development of CUWiNware Version 1.0. Within a year, CUWiNware 1.0 will deliver a wireless mesh networking product that is robust, easy to implement, and highly scalable. Version 1.0 will include cutting edge features and functionality. In essence, the features it contains will make implementing a CUWiN-based network both exceedingly easy and far less expensive than proprietary systems.

CUWiN's Disruptive Potential
CUWiN is poised to revolutionize the telecommunications industry in the years to come. CUWiN's low-cost and dynamic technologies provide a superior networking alternative to the "one-connection-per-house" model that dominates the industry. Local ISPs and organizations who utilize CUWiN's technology will have a competitive advantage over "telecom dinosaurs" using antiquated business models.

CUWiN creates networks that mirror the way most users utilize broadband services: peer-to-peer. Most proprietary technologies create unnecessary congestion by relying upon overly centralized and hierarchical infrastructures. CUWiN's technologies create decentralized and non-hierarchical networks that are both faster and cheaper to run. Allowing network implementers to focus on services, applications, and community empowerment rather than on the bottom line.
Continuing in this tradition of participatory systems and community empowerment, CUWiN encourages democratic media production and promotes the do-it-yourself ethic. Contemporary publishing models often rely on heavily capitalized corporations to back the production of information available for public consumption.

Networks utilizing CUWiN's technologies, on the other hand, can level the playing field, enabling low-capital production and dissemination of media and information. You do not need to pay "experts" to set up CUWiN networks: CUWiN's extensive documentation allows communities and neighborhoods to build their own networks and provide their own services. CUWiN's community of users provides a huge resource for troubleshooting, expert feedback, and experimentation. CUWiN aims to help close the digital divide and increase digital inclusion by eliminating barriers to entry and providing a powerful tool for any municipality, organization, or individual to take charge of their own digital destiny.

This is the first in an ongoing series of technological pieces focusing on cutting edge alternative technologies. Often developing under the radar of traditional media outlets, AltTechs often provide equivalent services and applications, but do not usually have the PR and marketing reach of dominant technologies. AltTechs are often Free and Open Source projects and have the potential to dramatically lower IT costs.

Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributer to Digital Communities and the Founder and Executive Director of CUWiN.net. Sascha serves on the Board of Directors for CTCnet, a US-based network of more than 1000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology. In 2006, Sascha founded EthosWireless.com, a wireless consultancy focused on social justice. Sascha blogs regularly at SaschaMeinrath.com.