Anyone who knows me understands how much I despise most of the Telecommunications industry. Whether it’s cell phone companies disabling the wifi card in new smartphones for anyone who doesn’t sign up for absurdly expensive data plans, or internet providers purposely giving unsecure wifi connections to anyone who’ll take it, then billing them for all the movies their neighbours’ kids download with it, these people are doing anything and everything to take our money, and I’d feel a lot better about that if I didn’t have family currently losing their Nortel pensions.

But thanks to this expensive, wasteful extravagance, there are now so many old computers, networking hardware and phones kicking around. And thanks to the half-assed jobs done configuring all this garbage, there are now millions of people with a fair bit of knowledge about networking kicking around, many of whom learned it just so they could get their living room hooked up to the internet. Add this to the large chunk of my generation which bought into the false promise of “high-tech jobs”, got fantastically educated, only to find out the promised sea of white-collar jobs pick up and move to India. And then keep in mind that a good chunk of the skills they learned only really apply to those junk parts in our closets.

But what’s the alternative? You can sew your own clothes, grow your own food and even cut your own lumber, but the internet, by definition, is a pay-for-play service? How do we cut out these middlemen without loosing our connection? We start building our own networks.

A very good chunk of most cities is already covered by many wireless networks. And what’s holding their routers back is usually software. The difference between a $60 router and a $600 router is often simply software which allows the user to tinker more with the settings.. Thanks to the wonders of Linux, that $540 upgrade can come free. Most routers ship with their broadcast power set fairly low, and that’s almost always fixable with a few clicks and keystrokes. The one big problem which does exist is the antennas, but since wifi signals operate on the microwave band, virtually anything can be spliced up into much more powerful devices. Perhaps the most famous of these, the “cantenna” is literally a soup can and a cable jack, and the signals you get are reported to blow away almost anything you’d get at best buy. And with some sheet metal, patterns off the internet, and the ability to get a C- on a 3rd grade art project, you can build something even more powerful. Oh, and if this weren’t enough, all those satellite dishes hanging off our houses can receive a very distant signal along a line of sight (ideal for urban areas)

As for servers, anyone who played Quake or Diablo knows that servers often take much less power than those used to access them – I knew lots of people who converted old computers into game servers so their own computers could focus on rendering the graphics. And for over a decade I’ve known plenty of people, right down to broke teenagers, who managed to run web servers as businesses out of their bedrooms. The only missing piece of this equation for a very long time now was the ability to contact eachother’s computers directly. But now that ability comes with nearly every computer or phone we buy comes with the ability to talk directly to each other, there’s really only one thing stopping us – the companies told them not to.

The advantages for something like this are enormous. Instead of stealing each other’s wireless, neighbours could split the cost of a fiber optic line, dropping everyone’s internet bill for lighting-fast speeds down to a few bucks per household. And even without such a system, we could allow users to log on locally and share their unused bandwidth with others who can’t afford their own connections. In trade, they could offer extra processor power (crowd-computing is evolving in leaps and bounds these days), server space or key locations for transmitters (like houses with tall chimneys).

Because file sharing takes up such an enormous amount of bandwidth, and Megavideo is about the least efficient way imaginable, since everyone downloads the files over vast networks from central servers, often several times before they finish watching it each time. If we simply shared our movie and music folders (read-only, of course), that would save an unbelievable amount of bandwidth and frustration. How many server farms are running right now just so we can find convoluted ways of sharing data with the guy next door by sending it a few times around the world first? And while there are legal issues with this (though many less in Canada), the very local and constantly evolving structure of the network would make it even harder to police such things than the current internet. And while some people might be wary of nasty people using such “wild frontiers” to their advantage, think about it: if you had a kiddie-porn folder on your hard drive, would you let your neighbours know? And of course, even from a purely legal standpoint, the amount of data needed by individuals (most of which, like text books or medical journals will be digital if it isn’t already) but could be useful to others – if chefs share cookbooks, and tailors share patterns, then everyone else can benefi. And as for what kind of content would be generated on and by such a medium (the way youtube transformed video), that’s an entire question in itself, but by allowing those nearby to share enormous amounts of data quickly and free, the possibilities for things like locally produced films and albums are quite tempting.

And then there’s voip, and the dual possibilities of escaping from our phone bills (especially cell phones). Or the possibility for people to share unused time on their landlines so that the network’s VIOP servers could use them to make local calls (the main problem with free VIOP – accessing the traditional phonelines).

The very structure of this network would make it extremely resilliant to attack or disaster. If anyone with a network card can set one up, and anyone within range will pick it up, shutting them down would become impossible. And because routers and laptops take so little energy to run (and getting them as junk saves unbelievable amounts of resources in production and disposal), even one rooftop worth of solar panels could cover square kilometres, meaning that in a disaster like the Ice Storm or Hurricane Katrina, it would probably be the only thing still functioning, and the only way of passing vital info between neighbours. And while networks like this raise many security issues, they also give us an option most on the internet don’t have – physically tracking down the hacker in question. And of course, from an anarchist point of view, they become very very difficult, by definition, to co-opt by profiteering corporate middlemen. And the best part is that the structure is so cheap and versatile that it could grant internet access to many third-world areas at a fraction of current costs.

Obviously, there’s still a long way to go, but if this kind of thing interests you, then here’s some links to get ya started:

DD-WRT (official site), the net’s best known linux-based router firmware upgrades.
Open WRT – another linux based, but more open-source example of router firmware.
One of the net’s many homebrew wireless antennas – requires cardboard, scissors and aluminium foil.
The immortal cantenna, an excellent how-to.
Turn your Nintendo Wii into a web server
And finally, ever since those first hackers build a few dozen X-boxes with linux into one of the world’s ranking supercomputers, everyone’s been joining in the fun. The US air force is now using over 300 Playstation 3s clustered for it’s own uber-cheap and super-powerful computing purposes.