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Radical technology collective and solidarity network

The internet is not a product you buy, it is a network you join

The internet is on your roof.

Corporations dominate our access to the internet in The Netherlands. Mass surveillance is legalised here under the sleepwet. Not a lot of people understand how the internet works. It’s a big part of our lives but we don’t have much say about how it is organised and governed.

The idea is floating around in Rotterdam: can we run our own internet service provider? Do we really need the Ziggos & the KPNs to connect to the internet? Inspired by projects like NYC Mesh, Freifunk, Wireless Leiden & Wireless België, we have enough successful examples to know that it is indeed possible to do it ourselves.

However, it is not easy to start a conversation about these topics. Engaging a diverse audience in this discussion is difficult. People do not feel like they have the skills & the right to speak out about how things are being done. In order to make a change, we could self-organise our own internet access & learn about how the internet works as we do it.

Discussions about what we want the internet to mean for society do not need to be abstract, inaccessible and run by out-of-touch technical “experts” and self-interested politicians. This short article from NYC Mesh shows the way:

Bypass your ISP

The internet is not a product you buy, it is a network you join. It was started by networks joining together. There was no charge for this as both sides benefited. When networks join it is called “peering” and this continues today in data centers. Nobody needs to pay for peering.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are able to get between you and this free peering community by running cables to your apartment and charging rent for these cables. ISPs aren’t really selling you bandwidth, they are renting you cables. If you own your own cables or wireless connection you can bypass the ISP and their fees and data collection. Community networks can bypass the ISPs by using long range wireless connections from data centers to your roof.

The internet is distributed across the planet with no central ownership. If you connect your roof to the internet you are extending the internet, and others can extend the internet from your roof.

We can bypass the ISPs and use community networks to extend the internet to everyone.

Projects like NYC Mesh use wireless antennas to connect to the internet. They point an antenna from their data center access point to their own houses. For this to work, they need to be able to see the access point directly from their house. This is called “line of sight”, they’ve built a special tool just for checking this:

An example of a line of sight search on the NYC Mesh tool.

Rotterdam is actually a great place to start a self-organised internet project. There is a data center close to the center of the city in the Van Nelle factory where it would be possible to connect directly to the internet via the NL-ix exchange.

In Rotterdam West, there are multiple ways a point to point connection could be made from Van Nelle into the neighbourhood. I think it would be an ideal place to start because the scale of the project is then small & manageable: everything is in walking distance!

Lines of sight from Van Nelle to several rooftops above Rotterdam West.

Building such a network of connections is more of a social problem than a technical one. It seems like the only way to succeed in such a project is to build a strong co-operative network in the neighbourhood and the city. There are a number of difficult organisational issues which I’m not sure how to work out:

  • Install (or share?) hardware in the data center
  • Set up peering, a hefty technical challenge
  • Convince the data center to support an outbound antenna transport
  • Get access to private rooftops to do antenna installs
  • Navigate the legal implications of providing internet access

This project is still in the research phase, if you’re interested to chat about it, please get in touch! We could take a walk around the neighbourhood and visit the Van Nelle factory. For now, things are starting off small but they’re starting. There is already an open network access point in Rotterdam West, somewhere on the Schiedamseweg. It is not password protected and anyone can make use of it!

The first humble WiFi access point, -het dak web-