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<nettime> Community WiFi in UK and Germany, a round-up
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 14 Oct 2007 12:27:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Community WiFi in UK and Germany, a round-up

Continuing on what I posted here recently, there was a most
interesting discussion on the wsfii list giving a nice round-up of the
community WiFi situation in UK/London & Germany, by people who are
central in the movement. This followed on a request for comment on how
to start up community WiFi in Haiti...

originals on the wsfii-discuss list at:


Julian Priest:

(many thanks to all on this thread) 

Here's an addition. 'scuse the length of the post it's been a
while since I wrote on telco subjects and revisits many old themes.

On Tue, Oct 02, 2007 at 12:27:49PM +0100, vortex {AT} free2air.net wrote:
> FON is a well funded company offering a pyramid scheme of bandwidth and 
access control services utilising an AP model for maximum connectivity to 
potential income streams. Some FON firmware versions have been cracked 
(thanks to sven-ola and others) to allow freifunk mesh networks to openly 
pass thru and ride invisibily along side an otherwise operable FON AP [1]. 
They also claim to be the "world's largest wifi "community" [2] (we'll 
come to that "c" word in a moment).

* Tying the knot

As if on queue, this announcement from Fon and British Telecom.


"BT has teamed up with Spanish technology company Fon, backed by
Google, to try to persuade its more than 3 million British internet
users to open up part of their home wireless broadband networks so
that other people can use them."


"From the very beginning, all of you, Foneros, believed in the concept
of sharing and in peoples ability to build something important that would
benefit everyone. BT is one of the most important telcos and ISPs in
the world, so with BT FON those beliefs have proved to be

doh! at the risk of falling for this obvious troll :)

The publicity presents FON as a freenetwork. Indeed the rhetoric,
wireless hardware, and even software distribution (openwrt) are the

* Free != Free

As outlined on this thread main differences between FON and a
freenetwork are:

1. Topology - FON is an extension of the DSL network and doesn't
   provide alternative routes apart from through the backhaul 
   provider. (This in contrast to an open local network like guifi 
   or a mesh like freifunk)

2. Ownership - who owns the box, both legally and in the sense of
   having root access.

3. Billing - these two create the possibility of a billing
   infrastructure at the node - the star topology makes the node a
   control point for it's clients, and the BT/FON owned captive portal
   uses this control as the basis of a billing infrastructure.

In the case of la fonera;


or more clearly; 


The 'consumer' gets the box for no payment but it runs someone elses
software, and 'consumers' are legally discouraged from changing it by the
T&C's even if it is reflashable.

Your freedom to config is limited *by* the gift of the device - the
capital cost of the device is recouped later through monetisation of
the portal that it creates.

In that sense it's a bit like a free web service - you can use the
service (built on free software platforms even) for no payment, but
you can't tinker with the algorithms and the economic benefit accrues
to the service.

* History

This announcement has some history. Going back to the UK in 2000,
wireless groups such as free2air.org and consume.net proposed wireless
networks as a way of building a self provided network infrastructure
whose ownership was in the hands of it's users.

Partly this was in response to BT's foot dragging over the
introduction of DSL based broadband. Partly it was an attempt to move
away from the monolithic vertically integrated near monopoly that
characterised network ownership then.

We figured that the Internet was too valuable a resource to be owned
by a small number of entities whoever they were(and still do). Rather
than following a competitive model between a few large providers (as
operates in mobile telephony), we proposed a distributed ownership
model based on collaboration or federation between many small or very
small networks. This ownership model reflects the decentralised models
made possible by the Internet protocols.

BT - wedded to a service provider model and trickle-feed bandwith
selling - perceived wireless as a threat and made several intervetions
into the space to challenge attempts to embed new network models over
the years. 

Normally BT have eventually adapted to the perceived threat to embrace
part of it as a business opportunity.

In 2002 BT lobbied against self provision, then switched to
lobby for commercial access to license exempt spectrum, then rolled
out a hotspot service (open zone).

As wireless developed, clusters of users would use wireless to
connection share. This was originally seen as a threat by BT however
they soon recognised it as a way of informally agregating users to
reach price points below those which BT could afford to market
to. (sub 5 GBP per month)

At the outset of the UK municipal wireless movement around the Access
to Broadband Campaign which cristicised lack of rural broadband, BT
responded by magically DSL enabling previously 'un-economic' exchanges
just as rural wireless was beginning to get some traction and
political backing in the UK. Then went on to bid for municipal
wireless projects themselves.

In 2004 we saw the acknowledgement of the 'default freenetwork' formed
by people leaving the default 'open' settings on their access points
providing essentially gratis hotspots. This was initially seen by BT
as a threat and was countered by a wireless security camapign but is
now being re-examined.

It looks like the rationale for this FON tie up is to give away
devices with controlled default settings and limited free access thus
turnning what they saw as a profitless network segment into an
opportunity for their hotspot business to grow. Now that BT have no
mobile arm, it is also a way of extending their Fusion home wifi/gsm
phone service and reducing reliance on third party GSM.

* Beyond Telecom

In a weird development in 2005 BT approached me to propose a research
project through BT research to look into ways of engaging the
community in operation of the local loop. (I declined)

It has long been recognised that British Telecom had a problem with
it's DSL technology based on a copper local loop. In the 80's to avoid
the goverment asking them to open their metropolitan ducting to
competing fibre networks, BT apparently completely filled the ducts
with copper thus physically preventing others from using the ducts.

Now having bet heavily on DSL, BT are tied to an ageing copper local
loop which requires an expensive work force of about 9000 just to
permanently maintain it - and maintenance is not really hitting their

"Unfortunately, the underlying failure rate for mainstream repair
performance (i.e. SMPF/MPF/WLR) continues at an unacceptably high
level (15-25%) & remains substantially short of agreed targets."
                                                Sept 2007


At the same time broadband access has become a commodity market so the
margins are slim - too slim apparently to maintain the existing copper
properly or to roll out the more reliable fiber to the home.

The profit centres in the telecoms business have moved away from
consumer network provision, to wholesale backhaul, services at the
edge of the network (like google) and value added services.

BT are trying to make the move and increasingly focus on high value
services like Network Security and Software Development eg. the recent
NHS software contract.

At the time of their research proposal to me it seemed to me that BT
were looking for ways to dump the responsibility of the local loop and
their universal service obligation onto the community via wireless at
the point at which it had become an unprofitable burden to them.

I was left wondereing if BT would follow BP and rebrand Beyond Telecom
for financial reasons!

* Opposites Attract

It's ironic to see BT finally countering the perceived 'threat' of
freenetworks by absorbing the freenetwork movement's rhetoric and tools
(if not the substance of network ownership and topology) via the FON
tie up.

The press touts the FON/BT tie up as a triumph for open networks - and
perhaps it will extend access somewhat. However it is perhaps
better characterised as an attempt to increase the reach of BT's
vertically integrated network to compete with GSM in the mobile/voip
space via their Fusion product and to regain the outer edge of the
network as a billing infrastructure.

That said wireless freenets and BT/FON have become very close in
message and implementation. I'm not sure that if I was BT/FON I'd be
relying on the inviolability of an already compromised platform
created mainly by freenetwork developers to carry the weight of my
billing infrastructure!

On the other hand if BT/FON do manage to roll out as planned, up to 3
million devices will be well placed to implement an open wireless
mesh local loop network and only a few entries in /etc and a couple of
daemons away from doing so.

If history repeats itself BT/FON will be seeing that as a threat about
now, before adopting it as a key strategy before too long.

* C for Collaboration

For community networkers though, focusing on the other great, proven
network models like guifi and freifunk is going to be much more
productive in the long run than fiddling with foneras.

With the low cost of devices, open platforms like openwrt and the new
open hardware in development, there are plenty of options for adding
to rapidly growing community networks and adding to the common pool of
network, knowledge and tools at the same time.

Networks are all about co-existence and collaboration - succesful
infrastructures bind us together in subtle ways irrespective of
culture and economic goals.

For me the most interesting developments at present are in open local
access networks like guifi.net. Guifi have an impressive region wide
peer produced network, which features impressive volunteer
action, and even small businesses that aid people in maintaining the
network. It has bandwidth donated to it for social inclusion reasons
by local municipalities, companies and indivdiduals.

Ten years on it's great to see the model propossed as theory by
early freenetworks, borne out in practice in catalunya - 4700 nodes
growing by 50-100 a week.

Intriguingly at Guifi there is also the beginnings of telco uptake of
the freenetwork. With a free local access network companies are able
to offer chargeable services across it such as internet access,
guarenteed backhaul, voip or vpn. An open local network creates a
space for many players, both social and businesses, to offer services in
a way that a vertically integrated market like BT/FON never can.

* Loopback

Over the years there has been an ongoing unspoken dialogue between
freenetworks and BT in the UK with innovation in freenetworks followed
by adaptation and adoption by BT.

BT/FON has now shown itself to be just another the extension of the
old provider model. How much stronger the position would be for all
parties, if it was the *substance* of freenetworking that was being
absorbed rather than just the rhetoric appropriated once more as

If history repeats itself it may not be long before BT sees FON as a
way out of their copper quagmire. If they see open local access
networks as an opportunity and not a threat it could be that they
themselves make those changes in /etc and install mesh daemons on

Until telcos have the courage to see open access network models as an
oppotunity rather than as a threat, communites are better off
understanding and higlighting the differences and finding their own
way towards sustainable network solutions. 



[*] this post may include non-binding opinion, hearsay, forward
    looking statements, backward looking statements, delusional
    optimism, hopeless misrepresentation etc. your mileage may vary.


Juergen Neumann:

About freifunk.net: The early initial work that me an my collegues took, 
was to set up a website and to find simple mechanisems to gether all the 
people out there who wanted to do the very same things. Freifunk.net was 
very much inspired by the british consume.net. I got to know all these 
people from britain in early 2002 and one of my first plans was to simply 
call/label the German community de.consume.net. But the more we thought 
about it, we realized that this really wouldn't make much sense. Because 
local activities need a localized branding etc. Also the German term 
freifunk means free radio, which is a very strong name which speaks a lot 
from it self in the german speaking community.

There are a few rules that we have adopted for freifunk.net that make it 
so strong:

1. It's totaly non-commercial (no ads, no payed labor, no legal body, it's
just a movemet of equals!)

2. The technical infrastructure is based on the picopeering agreement:


3. It's as decentralized as possible

4. It's ment to connect and support all people, who are willing to build 
and use free wireless infrastructures (no exclusions)

5. It's part of an international movement like these http://www.wsfii.org

6. It has a good design and a strong brand which works like a community
frenchaise model - everyone can adopt the design and will find stylesheets 
and GPLed logos and presentations to use themselves here:


7. It doesn't serve the community - it is the community

8. It's based on the strong idea of DIY motivation (If you want to build a
boat, tell the people about the beauty of the sea!)  

9. We have our own free GPLed firmware which can be customized to 
diffenrent looks and designs, extended with individual plugins and which 
is used by many other communites on the globe with different brandings. 
The firmware is the technical implementation of the freifunk-ideas and 


10. freifunk.net is also a Domain Name Service, which delegates subdomains 
for cities, regions or organisations to the local communites an their 
websites, e.g: 

http://augsburg.freifunk.net, http://berlin.freifunk.net,
http://leipzig.freifunk.net, or more general: 

11. There is are several websites, blog and services which are of 
relevance for all communities. These are e.g.: http://global.freifunk.net,

http://blogs.freifunk.net, http://freifunk.net, 

12. People with different skills, social and technical engineers, 
webdesigners, coders, text-writers, marketing experts, artists can all 
help to push the movement - and everyone will profit from a truely free 
local wirelees infrastructure, to share files, contents, VOIP, and share 
the costs for an internet access.

But as I have learned over the years, this process needs one or more 
individuals to push and to protect the points I have addressed earlier. 
The initiative needs to be protected from beeing overtaken by some 
egotistic personalities or commerical entities. And it needs people to 
initialize und push this process. I am very happy to see that there is a 
growing number of people in the world who are understanding the strength 
of a true non commercial community approach. I am also very much aware of 
the fact that the means of "non-commercial" and the ability of user 
contribution vary a lot between e.g. europe and other countries. But even 
under different conditions I think that there is a good chance to try to 
build a network together with the local communtity. Let's have a closer 
look at cost structures at first:

1 Hardware (computers, router, cables, Antennas)
2 Education
3 roll-out (set up costs)
4 Electricity
5 maintainance and support services

I'm leaving out costs for Internetaccess, as in our model of a free 
network, this is an extra service that can be run on a free network (e.g. 
via a virtual private network). But the expences e.g. on a VSAT line 
should be an extra business case on top of the free wireless Intranet. To 
understand more about the idea of true Open Public Local Access Networks 
(OPLANs), please also take a look at Malcolm Mattsons website 


Here in germany all of the costs listed above are truly user contributed. 
Users buy their own hardware and pay for electricity themselves. 
We/individuals offer free trainings to educate them, how to connect the 
routers to the network. So the roll-out is done by every single user 
himself/herself. This is very important, because only this makes it 
possible to grow the network almost endlessly without the need of having a 
huge administrative team to manage the network. Users in other places can 
start a network themselves once they know how to do this. Our meshing 
technology is a very important key issue to these kinds of organically 
growing infrastructures.

Maintainance and support services are also user contributed. We do 
organize this like in a Linux User Group. We offer regular meetings very 
localy. E.g. in Berlin we offer regular meetings once a week in the 
evenings in almost every district. These meeting works like a typical user 
group. People who have questions or problems can go there. They can ask 
their questions, and the person with the less skills needed to answer the 
questions is pleased to do so. If the question is more complecated, a more 
educated person is asked to answer. And only if it is even more 
complicated the _true experts_ are needed. This is a very important 
methodology to deal with local ressources. Also people learn from the very 
beginning to tech and help each other. It also helps to educate the 
"experts" not to involve in every issue, but also to give other people a 
chance to help others and to learn more and more over time, so that they 
can become experts themselves one day.

There is another important issue I would like to address at this point. I 
know that many of the costs adressed above can not always be taken by the 
users in the local community themselves. But I think it's a good way to 
try to help the others to get to own their own nodes (access points). 
Cause in the end it's all about the ownership of the network. Our networks 
are owned by the users! So it will be very hard to sell them to a 
commercial entity to the good of only a few people who might have 
established some superpower within the local community. This is to protect 
te wealth that over time the community has built into the network. It also 
protects us from the laws which are adressed to network providers. As 
there is no single entitiy that runs the network, there is no legal body 
other than all the single users who are offering this service. At least 
here in europe these people therefore are no service providers. As 
mentioned before, a service like e.g. Internet can be run as a different 
modell on top of the network! This is a very important issue that I can 
not stress often enough!

So as I know that this modell might not be adoptable so easily, you should 
find ways of how to realize this. One could be that the routers and other 
equipment are sold to the users with microcredits. There might be other 
ways to solve this issue, but I am sure that you as local people will know 
much better than me how this issue could be solved.

I also want to tell you, that when we started this project, many people 
told us, that a user contributed network would not work at all, because 
someone would have to be the leader responsible for the hole network. It 
was very hard to defend the project against these inputs. But now, five 
years later, there are freifunk.net initiatives in very many different 
parts of Germany and also a growing number of freifunk-like projects out 
there in the world. In Berlin we have over a thousand nodes today and in 
many other citys and rural areas all over Germany people have odopted our 
model. It truely worked and works and grows from day to day!

A lot of words I have put here. I hope they are of any help. Many people 
in many places have this or a similar idea (like you!). And many of the 
people want to start their own local project with a local label. I think 
this is very good and it is very important to be as locally as possible. 
But on the long run you should also think of one label or website where 
you all gether your projects in your local language, including all the 
experiance and ideas: a meta website for all the free network projects in 
your country. This is very important to bundle your powers! This meta site 
should link to all the local projects and it should also provide as much 
information as possible for people who want to start their own local 
initiative. Please get in touch with the others and try to encourage each 
other to start with all your ideas and get the things going! From my 
experiance the success of a community-project is much more about social 
engeneering than one might think!




John Wilson:

Julian -- Thanks for the re-statement of freenetwork first principles.

Beyond the q of wireless and first-mile network issues, there's the whole 
political level.  Freenetters are best advised to do what they know best-- 
innovate with technology and social solutions.

I'll add some comment, for the record.

Locating issues of wireless-infrastructure-bandwidth within the wider 
telecoms-regulatory-policy landscape.

I was active on the UK telecoms-citizen-consumer scene in the period 
Julian describes, when broadband access commanded a political agenda and 
"wireless" came from left-field to offer a "first mile" broadband 

Specific to the UK, this case study has more universal application 
regarding the ever-adaptability of capital/telcos and the "creative 
destruction" (Schumpeter) of markets and technology (r)evolution.

Around 2000-2004 I conceived and led the ABC Access to Broadband Campaign 
project [see eg: 

http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39117019,00.htm ].

- with significant early evangelical support from BT's former Chief 
Technologist Peter Cochrane [ see eg. video "Seamless freedom: The 
wireless revolution"].

- plus a significant practical efforts and intervention into government 
and BT telecoms circles by leading US no-licence wireless activist Dave Hughes 
see eg. video ;


which actually pre-dates the mass  emergence of wi-fi].

At the high political level, a cross-party political consensus was 
established for the "Broadband Britain" agenda. Significantly the 
opposition party did its job and took a lead in parliamentary debate, when 
Sir George Young convened a debate on rural broadband with significant 
reference to wireless. Less known is the fact that Sir George was a former 
BT employee.

BT's activities over the period 2000 - 2004, and beyond to the present, 
highlight some salutatory lessons:

- as Julian documents, BT's adaptations to the emergence of wi-fi ...

- consider: lock-in strategy and delay to market with early wireless 
players such as Radiant Networks; opportunistic use of early wireless 
players such as Gaia in North Wales as a spoiler for community-based 
projects; then the the hot-spots model tied to telco providers business 
model and marketing strategy; then the pre-emptive formation of 
telco-municipal consortia - BT's "Wireless Cities" initiative - as a 
spoiler to independent muni- and regional- telco emergence; all the while 
at the higher political-regulatory level, BT along with other global 
players playing a top-down lobbying game and regulatory stalemate- eg the 
use of State Aid Rules as a delay mechanism at EU European level via the 
telco operators body ETNO: 


-- this latter tactic probably fended off the nascent regional government 
/devolved administrations moves towards public sector intervention in the 
UK, buying a 2-3 year window, in which time an agressive ADSL roll-out 
strategy was formulated and very successfully implemented

- never take your eyes off the incumbent; adaptability and strategy- 
"embrace, extend, extinguish", see: 


- regulatory capture? the gordian knot of telecoms 
and the ultimate resolution of the new converged regulator OFCOM (modelled 
on the FCC)

- I've posted some retrospective reflections here 


In brief, the political game-play, as only the well resourced telcos know 
how. The latest cause celebre being the Net Neutrality fiasco in the US 
(with a telco lobbying $ war chest thats beyond belief).

There are those that dismiss the whole net neutrality debate as a 
smokescreen. There's also debate about BT as a global leader in "telco2.0" 

Meanwhile, we do not have a network infrastructure that meets next 
generation requirements. You can bet that the incumbent telco have been 
lobbying on that one, too.

Meanwhile, beyond all the rhetoric and claims... the reality of telecoms 
infrastructure persists. Beyond the conjurer's trick of ADSL, the 
government-telco agenda reverts back to the NGN Next Generation Networks 

Its on the new Minister's agenda: 


So that the NGN issue sets the framework for "Broadband Britain2.0" - and 
the q of public sector intervention is back on the agenda.

And so... a road map of the decade's twists and turns... reinforces the 
return to first principles...

and so as history has a tendency to repeat, one may perhaps endure the 
repetition of past practice...


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