Engineer Gets Tired Of Waiting For Telecom Companies To Wire His town — So He Does It Himself

Gurb, 75 kilometers north of Barcelona, is a quiet farming community of 2,500. It has suddenly become a popular place, thanks to being the birthplace of Guifi.net, one of the world’s “most important experiments in telecommunications.” It was built by an engineer who got tired of waiting for Telefonica, the Spanish telecom giant, to provide internet access to the people of his community. At first he wanted an internet access for himself, but it soon became clear that he also wanted to help his neighbors. Guifi has grown from a single wifi node in 2004, to 30,000 working nodes today, including some fiber connections, with thousands more in the planning stages. An article on Backchannel today documents the tale of Guifi. From the article: The project is a testament to tireless efforts — in governance, not just in adding hardware and software — by Ramon Roca (the engineer who started it) and his colleagues. They’ve been unwavering in their commitment to open access, community control, network neutrality, and sustainability. In 2004, he bought some Linksys WiFI hackable routers with a mission to get himself and his neighbors connected to the Internet. This is how he did it: Roca turned on a router with a directional antenna he’d installed at the top of a tall building near the local government headquarters, the only place in town with Internet access — a DSL line Telefonica had run to municipal governments throughout the region. The antenna was aimed, line of sight, toward Roca’s home about six kilometers away. Soon, neighbors started asking for connections, and neighbors of neighbors, and so on. Beyond the cost of the router, access was free. Some nodes were turned into “supernodes” — banks of routers in certain locations, or dedicated gear that accomplishes the same thing — that could handle much more traffic in more robust ways. The network connected to high-capacity fiber optic lines, to handle the growing demand, and later connected to a major “peering” connection to the global Internet backbone that provides massive bandwidth. Guifi grew, and grew, and grew. But soon it became clear that connecting more and more nodes wasn’t enough, so he created a not-for-profit entity, the Guifi.net Foundation. The foundation, thanks to its cause and a cheerful community, has received over a million Euros to date — from various sources including several levels of government. But as the article notes, a million Euros is a drop in the bucket next to the lavish subsidies and favors that state-approved monopolies such as Telefonica have enjoyed for decades. The article adds: The Guifi Foundation isn’t the paid provider of most Internet service to end-user (home and business) customers. That role falls to more than 20 for-profit internet service providers that operate on the overall platform. The ISPs share infrastructure costs according to how much demand they put on the overall system. They pay fees to the foundation for its services — a key source of funding for the overall project. Then they offer various kinds of services to end users, such as installing connections — lately they’ve been install fiber-optic access in some communities — managing traffic flows, offering email, handling customer and technical support, and so on. The prices these ISPs charge are, to this American (Editor’s note: the author is referring to himself) who’s accustomed to broadband-cartel greed, staggeringly inexpensive: 18 to 35 Euros (currently about $26-$37) a month for gigabit fiber, and much less for slower WiFi. Community ownership and ISP competition does wonders for affordability.
Contrast this with the U.S. broadband system, where competitive dial-up phone access — phone companies were obliged to let all ISPs use the lines as the early commercial Internet flourished in the 1990s — gave way to a cartel of DSL and cable providers. Except in a few places where there’s actual competition, we pay way more for much less.Read the story in its entirety here.


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