Consumption is so passive

Posted Fri 22 Jul
2 comments so far

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

Lots of strands of my life have started to coalesce. And they are starting to coalesce towards Good. Not coalescing in any obvious way, but those who are aware of all the contexts I hold in my head, it isn’t surprising. But I don’t want to talk about some of the more…esoteric branches, this one is an idea borne out of many things. Let me explain these many things, none of which involve sealing wax nor kings.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Ever since I started tinkering with radio in a (slightly more) serious manner, all sorts of thoughts have tumbled through my head. And as these fall, accreting as they go, other tangents get drawn in. As I…dislike the current tech rallying cry of ‘an app will solve the world!’, I always look for the low, and lower, tech solution.

As an aside, the problems are never in the technology, they are always with the people. I mean, there is more than enough food to feed the world, more than enough energy to keep everyone warm, more than enough brains to solve all sorts of problems. But we don’t. Because…people. People are always the weak point in the chain.

Anyhow, mostly to contradict myself, this isn’t a low-tech solution to a problem, but it isn’t archly high either.

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

Not so long ago, I was talking to the lead on one of the research groups at the Computer Lab in town. And some of his PhD students, as well. Now, turns out, a lot of what they were trying to do I’d already achieved in my shed. Me. In my shed. With my soldering iron and cluelessness. (Though that is another (few) posts for another time. I mean, I haven’t even written a post on my musical envirogenerations yet, and I love that, it is hyper-cool.)

Some of the problems they were trying to solve involved drones and flying datacentres. Now that is ace, but beyond my budget. All my playing-arounds are cheap, using what I have, and sticking to secondhand stores, Mother China for electronics and spending less than a posh cup of coffee from That London.

So I’m not going to solve that problem, but it did get me thinking. Surely some handwringing do-gooders helping refugees would have some convergent device with them, which they might allow to be a hotspot for others to use. (There is a internet-in-a-van that visits Calais, but this isn’t quite the same as that.)

I’ve an idea then, but I need to proof-of-concept it first. The next trigger was while walking around Bridge End Gardens in Saffron Walden, when I came across a young gentlemen whom I use to fight on a Sunday night. He was out catching Pok√©mon, but had run out of 3G, so was heading to a free wifi zone.

My thoughts wended their own merry way, as they do. Then I got an idea: What is there was some way of having a mesh network, say village wide, offering free wifi to all who wanted it?

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Now, there are many solutions to this. This one, however, is mine. But let’s still go through the motions, laying it out. Imagine, in the first instance, a few people on every street set up a second wifi network. Totally open. No charges, no passwords, just open. And as I wandered around, I could connect to one, then the next, then the next. It should be possible for me to wander around the streets and always be connected. Wouldn’t matter if there was a mobile blackspot, as there would always be someone’s open network within reach.

Right, OK, so there are probably alarm bells going off already, so let me allay some fears. Because, you know, I’ve already thought of them all, and solved them. Firstly, this will not be like those irritating pub/shopping centre/other places that have ‘free wifi provided by BT’. Those aren’t free. You give away a little piece of your soul. Or your email address. And they track you, know your device, know what you are doing (unless…well, let’s say they don’t get much from me). I despise that. Invasive, and unnecessary. My model is nothing like theirs. At all.

Rule 1 then: There will be no tracking/monitoring on my ‘village-wide wifi’, it is anonymous and nothing can be traced to an individual’s broadband account. More on this later, I’m still addressing concerns here.

Which leads into ‘stealing all my bandwidth/downloading all the torrents’ issues. But that’s simple. It will be throttled. No one device will be able to leech so much, or upset everyone else on the network. This isn’t meant to be a super-fast free-for-all scrounger’s network. This is a polite, fair-use public-spirited service. Imagine if you knew people who couldn’t afford broadband. This would give them a first-in to the digital world. Or if you were in a place that couldn’t get it, some of the fringes round here are like that. But it would be a boon for those disenfranchised from services like this.

Rule 2 then: Download your movies elsewhere, buddy.

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

But in case you missed it, it still looks like a patchwork of decent people opening a second network, and my device having to connect to one after the other. This is a bit sub-optimal. This is where my cheap-electronics-from-China comes into it. Before I got to the endpoint, my thinking was like this: Imagine if I took an ESP8266 and used it as a wifi repeater. Or better yet, as those things are ace, as another access point.

You should be able to see where is this going, given I don’t write linearly, and I’ve already given the game away.

Everyone gets a device, that connects to their network, but presents as a different one. And it can see other ones, and meshes with them as well. Again, showing as a single network. These are distributed all over, with little aerials and brains. Even better, others can be added easily, and taken away. It grows and shrinks, but seamlessly, adding a new one just increases the coverage.

And their little brains are paranoid. Which means they won’t tell, as they won’t know, where the in-and-out data came from. Which means they won’t track you, and everything is also encrypted, protected and anonymised. Nothing can be traced back to any router, it isn’t possible. Distributed, secure, safe. I certainly won’t let the Government in.

All the code it runs on will be open source, as will the electronics. In fact, all the schematics will be published under an open licence, and people will be encouraged to build their own, and add it to the mesh. Initial estimations put each mesh node at under a tenner to build. At the very most. But we’ll see. This is the manifesto-esque post, the tech one, with pictures and steps-to-reproduce, will come later.

It’s s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

That is all well and good for affluent South Cambs, but how will that help refugees, disaster areas or Third World countries? Now all it needs for a a wifi network is some people with phones (and data) at strategic points. Doesn’t even have to be phones, hook up some satellite internet (which is slow, granted) points and drop these devices round and about. The could act both as access points, mesh points and repeaters.

The point is, these should be cheap to build, easy to install and low-maintenance. Arduinos, ESP8622s, solar cells cover all this. (If you are interested, I’ve managed to get a steady 8V from B-grade solar panels. Running in my conservatory. While cloudy. They cost, from memory, about two quid each. Trickle-charging batteries are left as an exercise for the reader, as the writer has more than enough projects on the go.)

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

The main thing is to reassure people their broadband won’t suffer. I know mine won’t, I’m on some stupid 300mb line, and even when the house was full, with gaming/streaming children, it never hit much of a problem. Of course, this might be against the terms and conditions. But having read some of those, it mentions about securing your network, mostly to avoid people leeching your allowance, or hacking your router. Neither of these are a concern, as there will be limits (could be built in, so each mesh node knows how much it has served, and could shut itself down as and when) and there is no direct route to any individual machine. This really does present itself as a single, wide, free network.

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

But it only works if people are willing to donate a little slice of their broadband. Even before I get to that stage, I need to prototype it myself. My plan is, initially, to build two. One I connect to the router, the other, my phone. Using these two internet bridges, I mesh a little network. Then run some tests using a third device, and see how it goes. Expand out to a few more people, test, and see how it goes.

With enough people, and coverage, they needn’t even all run at once. They could be aware enough to shut themselves off if they are quorate, and bring themselves back in if others fall out. Maybe even be more intelligent than that, but one step at a time. The first thing is to make it work. Remember the rules: 1. Make it work 2. Make it fast 3. Make it right (and feel free to ignore step 3, and yes, I know. I know.)

Stop, now, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

We shouldn’t be scared of stepping on BT’s, or Virgin’s, or EE’s, toes. We shouldn’t be scared to open the lids of devices and peek inside. We shouldn’t be scared to help each other. We shouldn’t be scared to dream, think, make. We shouldn’t be scared to go beyond accepting what we are given. We shouldn’t be scared to be active rather than passive.

For what its worth.

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