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Freifunk: Germany's User-Run Network Explodes Beyond Its Borders

Freifunk, a free user-run network, is spreading like wildfire. In Berlin, it already covers more than one tenth of the city providing possible Internet access to about 350, 000 people. The Leipzig and Weimar communities are growing. And the model is starting to spring up to other countries.

by / April 2, 2007
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Juergen Neumann, the self-described geek who started it all.


Ask Juergen Neuman about what's new at Freifunk, and he will tell you; "it keeps growing." Probe him further for exact numbers, and the founder of this do-it-yourself wireless Internet community in Germany, draws a blank. "It is growing so fast that I can't rattle the numbers off-the-cuff," he says. "But I can tell you that it is the largest user-contributed mesh network in the world today."

That's Freifunk, a non-commercial open initiative to support free radio networks that began in 2003 in Berlin and is now globally regarded as one of the most successful projects of its kind. The most significant feature of this network is that it is a volunteer-run initiative that is not trying to be simply a wireless service provider. Rather, it seeks to enable local districts, villages and regions to set up their own mesh infrastructure.

"It is community effort where everyone is a contributor," says Juergen. "The idea is to spread knowledge about building free and open wireless community networks in collaboration with existing groups and organizations."

The initiative is based on the concept of an 'open public local access network' (OPLAN), developed by Malcolm Matson, the pioneer of broadband in the United Kingdoms who established Europe's first all-fiber network, COLT telecom. Adhering with OPLAN's philosophy, Freifunk aims not only to provide technical and general information about open wireless networks, but also seeks to help individuals and organizations raise public consciousness about freedom of information and communication. The idea is that this will enable others to build and maintain their own networks, and above all else, will help to create new social communities.

Every active user (each node owner) in Freifunk has to buy his/her access point. These access points are mostly Linux based distribution (Linksys WRT54GL or Buffalo Turbo G) hardware that runs on Freifunk-developed firmware. This firmware is also open source that can be freely downloaded from the Internet. "Many regional Freifunk groups offer support for this," says Juergen, adding that this means that if a new node owner in a loop is stuck, there will be many to provide voluntary help.

Set-up costs for a node are minimal. "It is within everybody's means," says Ingo Rau, co-founder of the initiative. Buying necessary equipment (antennas and the modem) will rarely exceed a hundred Euros. Such hardware provides a basic configuration that can cover a distance of about 200 to 300 meters. This usually is "good enough for any community," adds Rau. And if needed, for a little extra money (about 40 Euros) the coverage area can be extended to cover as much as 30 kilometers for line-of-sight antennas. The equipment is "power efficient," requiring just about 5 to 6 watt of electricity per day.

In essence, Freifunk is an Intranet through which members offer a gateway to the Internet. The firmware automatically detects an Internet gateway and "announces" it to the rest of the network. If there are several gateways to the Internet available, the routing software will automatically choose the best gateway. The firmware also offers traffic-shaping features. With the gateway plug-in, each network participant owning and offering the Internet access can decide how much of his bandwidth would be offered up to the Intranet.

"As in most parts of Europe, Internet is offered at a flat rate around about 20 Euros per month (for 2-16 Mbit/s) many just donate part of their unused bandwidth towards the Intranet," says Juergen.

However, "Access to the Internet is just one of the services available in the Freifunk network," says Juergen. All sharing this network can freely exchange any data -- files, chat, VoIP, etc. -- with relatively high bandwidth, up to 20 Mbit/sec. at 802.11g. And even though the basic tenet of Freifunk is free and open source, network participants are allowed to offer services on the network on a commercial basis as well.

For instance, it is possible for a participant to share the cost of a line (like VSAT) or to use an encrypted tunnel (Virtual Private Network) over the mesh, so that only those who are paying at a gateway can access the Internet over the Intranet. "It also gives the chance to run mixed modes, for example, offering free Internet access on the Intranet at low bandwidth, but offering high bandwidth over a VPN-Tunnel exclusively for paying or registered customers within the meshed network," says Juergen.

Seized Opportunity
According to Juergen, Freifunk was a result of a very big mistake made by German telecom companies after Germany's reunion. Reportedly, the telecom companies ripped out all the old cables in the eastern part of Germany to replace these with fiber optic cables instead. But in the rush to implement cutting-edge technology, the telecom companies did not realize that they would not be able to offer cheap services.

"When I moved into the eastern part of Germany in 2002 I realized that many there did not have broadband Internet despite the fact that by that time, Wi-Fi was already available widely," says Juergen. "Consequently the building I lived in had 35 people all sharing one single ISDN phone line for Internet access."

Being a self-described geek for many years, Juergen "couldn't bear the fact of living in a place without fast Internet access." So he bought routers and antennas and built two wireless local area networks (LANs) on the roof -top of his building. One was used to connect the build's 35 inhabitants to an Internet provider. The other one was connected to an omni-antenna to spread the signal in a radius of about 500 meters. This gave other people in the neighborhood cheap and fast Internet access.

The rest is history. "Today the Freifunk initiative is spreading like wildfire," says Juergen. "In Berlin we already cover more than one tenth of the city, which means that theoretically about 350, 000 people can connect to our network." The biggest communities in Germany are in Berlin (500 Nodes), Leipzig (300 Nodes) and Weimar (200). All networks are growing by about 10 to 20 new nodes every month. Moreover, many of the Freifunk networks are connected to each other using tunneling over the Internet, "so it is possible now to connect Weimar from Berlin and so on."

But perhaps the most interesting development of Freifunk community is that the initiative is now starting to spread beyond Germany's shores. It is now part of a global movement called World Summit on Free Information Infrastructures (http://wsfii.org), an ongoing international process where information and communication technology Infrastructures are shared across language, cultural and other boundaries.

"Consequently," says Daniel Pausler, a network participant who has assumed the charge of replicating Freifunk beyond Germany's borders, "there are many local projects using our software in many other countries such as France, Great Britain and in smaller villages all over Europe, as well as in the USA and Africa."

According to Juergen, the Freifunk community ardently espouses OPLAN's belief that three seminal technological developments -- the computer, optical fiber, and software controlled radio spectrum -- could completely turn the present communication world's business model on its head. That model is based on managing "scarcity" -- scarcity of network capacity, scarcity of customer equipment and scarcity of central-office switching facilities. And as Nicholas Negroponte, the famous founder of the MIT Media Lab, forecast way back in 2004 in his article (www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.10/wireless.html) that one day " Wi-Fi enabled lily pads and frogs" will transform the future of telecom, Juergen believes Freifunk could soon make communication a commodity of abundance freely available to everyone.

"Freifunk.net follows the rules of a great poet who said if you want people to build a boat, tell them about the beauty of the sea," says Juergen. "We are trying to do just that, give people the confidence that all can build their own communication infrastructures."

Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.