A Practical Navigator for the Internet Economy

Executive Summary

This November-December 2013 COOK Report explores the free network movement literally across continents and hemispheres – from agrarian villages nestled among the foothills of the Pyrenees to urban inner-city neighborhoods in America’s Heartland. As a follow on to the March April 2013 exploration of guifi.net and Isaac Wilder’s Kansas City work, it looks at these networks as part of a global movement - one where the builders are collaborating on a national and international level. These builders work together and share their tools and code. Nothing proprietary here. They don’t seek wealth.  They do seek to do for the communities in which they live what, “free market” based capitalism has failed to do. They are a bright hope for a future that, if one is not a part of the ruling elite, looks increasingly dim.

These networks of course are not free of cost – nothing is. But they stand for the freedom of users to create and build their own telecommunications infrastructure and to say “no” to the extractive model of shareholder-owned, restrictive and predatory telecommunications firms that have no interest in their customers other than extracting money and sending it to far off financial centers.  Furthermore, they display no interest in innovation because when backed by regulatory capture on behalf of their extractive business model they have no need to care  about innovation. Because, with monopoly models, they have no need to compete.

By way of contrast, the Free Networks emerging in the shadows of the granddaddy of them guifi.net in Catalonia Spain are models, not only of technology and economic innovation, but also of full scale collaboration among the members of the communities in which they grow.  As the West marches blithely on towards the next economic collapse, the communities that survive outside of a centralized neo-feudal surveillance state will do so because they take matters like telecommunications into their own hands.  It is the intent of this issue to show how this very basic, boot strap development is being done in North America, South America, and Europe. The goal here is large and very basic.  It is the right of every community to define and then build the infrastructure on which its economic political and social self-determination depends.  It is no longer just “internet”  - it is far more basic.  Does every community have the right to self-determination? The right to determine its own economic future?  They have had it in past - but the question now becomes whether the corporate state  will allow them to have it in the future?

It is now possible for a community to build broadband from the bottom up and dispense with the costly bureaucratic layers of the former national incumbent telecom carriers.  A community does this by interconnecting wireless nodes into what is known as a mesh network. When we look at what this means, there is considerable confusion between the first-generation model of more than ten years ago where a group of geeks put up some radios and connected them on an ad hoc basis.  Now with more advanced radios operating in different parts of the unlicensed spectrum, a new generation of geeks is doing two things never done before. One they are building networks to serve their communities - geek and non-geek alike. Two they have designed routing protocol's for their meshes that enable an amazingly resilient fabric of broadband throughput to be established and maintained. Because everything is open source and they share all their code and like Linux progress is rapid and significant.

What guifi.net pioneered almost ten years ago is a means of community ownership of the infrastructure. Radios are installed and linked in such a way as to form a fabric that like the air people breathe or the pastureland they use is treated as a commons something that belongs not to individuals but to the entire community. If you are skilled geek, you can use your Commons connection to do things like send email to anyone else with a Commons connection and do so entirely for free,

But the secret that guifi.ret has discovered is how to preserve, protect, and sustain the commons. It does this by action that is similar to structural separation in the commercial world. Namely it establishes an environment for installers who, for a fee can, enable any non-technical person to become a part of the mesh infrastructure. But once this is done, the installers have created an infrastructure platform that it is in their interest to maintain because it gives them a means of offering content for a small charge. The content is carried by the infrastructure platform that belongs to the community.

The disaster that was visited upon commercial Internet service in the United States and Europe when companies were allowed to both own infrastructure and use that infrastructure to provide content is avoided by the Commons license that is established to prohibit a successful content provider from ever being able to enter the infrastructure business. The infrastructure is vested in the community and is purposefully designed in such a way never will be allowed to fall into the hands of a single person or a single corporate entity.

In the United States this way of doing things can take us back to the original days of early ISPs in the mid-90s who were able to know their customers and establish innovative ways of meeting their needs. They could do this because access to infrastructure, that is to say, to the copper lines of the incumbent phone company was guaranteed by a regulator that, as yet uncaptured, worked for the public good rather than private profit.
As we shall see in our examination of the Kansas City Freedom Network, this approach can produce impressive results. Built in the shadow of Google's gigabit fiber by a determined group of less than a dozen young people whose key leaders had their trial by fire two years ago in Zucotti Park with Occupy Wall Street, the KCFN has come together in less than two years. In Kansas City, the Free Network foundation group, aided by fewer than a dozen other members of four community NGOs, has for somewhere around $50,000 been able to build an infrastructure that covers the three square mile historic black urban core and bring Internet service to a couple of thousand people living therein. Since these organizers have no 90 day tyranny imposed to extract more money on behalf of their shareholders they, to the contrary, are able to think about and plan for the building of an urban community. The possibility of such community was gradually destroyed by Ronald Reagan's demonization of government and glorification of the resilient individual three decades ago.   

Rather than individual enrichment, the goal is the development of the local economy and the self-reliance of people therein -- all of which is supported by the idealism of a few visionary young people who wish to serve their fellow humans by doing what is right. In Kansas City, the goal of this small group is to maintain the central infrastructure they have built and, by means of already instituted weekly workshops, show members of the community how they can gain the necessary skills to extend the core network into the hands of more individual users.  By doing this, during the next year of service they can turn their  new recruits into installers and network content operators - a la guifi.net.  By selling Internet access for other means of community owned and generated content for not a hundred dollars a month but for five or six dollars a month, they can generate the small cash flow necessary to maintain what the have built.

This is a true bottom up broadband where the goal is to serve and make livable the community in which one finds oneself rather than to engage in what Fred Goldstein aptly names vulture capitalism.  Investment; take the idea public after two or three years of frenzied quarterly profit statements; suck shareholder money in and then sell out. Rinse, lather and repeat. A predatory extractive economy.

In what follows, we recount in considerable detail the efforts of core groups that have come together around guifi.net and that in the last two years and at a level between the groups are working on methodologies to improve the firmware necessary to make the networks run in such a way that they can give a positive user experience to more people for less cost and extend a business that, while it will not give its creators palaces to live in, will ensure that something far more positive than the dominant world of state-backed financial capitalism will otherwise impose.

The Importance of Self-Determination for Lafayette Louisiana

In the United States community owned municipal networks have faced an uphill battle.   One of the worst problems continues to be the corporations who buy off state legislatures to pass laws that prohibit local communities from competing with the private sector. However, one in Lafayette Louisiana has been in operation for more than five years.  One of its major citizen backers explains below what this has meant to his home town.

John St Julien is a retired teacher of teachers who lives in Lafayette, Louisiana and who in around 2005 -- as his community had to fight the corporate owned state politicians for permission to do something for itself -- set up a blog called Lafayette Profiber that led a citizen revolt against Bell South and Cox Cable.  On August 29, 2013 John posted the following essay on what winning the battle has meant for his home town. He wrote: “I am weary, very weary, on both the national and my own local level of folks who are certain that those that look for a pragmatic way forward are somehow abandoning the ideals "that made us great." On the local level that manifests in the tea party minority who are sure that any governmental attempts to move the ball forward are, ipso facto, bad things —and that includes most emphatically our local municipal telecomms utility. On the national level it shows up as a dismissal of municipally owned telecommunications utilities as nothing more than yet another monopolist, just like all the "other" rent-seeking corporations.

The structuralist argument both ends of the spectrum use is that the structure of municipal ownership is destiny. —The right wing hold that it is a self-evident truth a “gubberment” agency is bound to be a sink hole of corruption and inefficiency while the left-leaning anti-corporatists see only another vertically integrated services-providing corporation whose adoption of a proven business model demonstrates the local yokels lack of loyalty to the ideals of open networks or structural separation. The particular structure, governmental bureau or corporate telecommunications that the sides object to are different but the basic objection is to the structure that they suppose municipal utilities represent. Structure is destiny; a bad, evil destiny; there is no need to look beyond the bad form.

The problem is that structuralism is an argument now several theoretical turns of the screw out of date. Where it was once accepted that institutional structures determined the role of  the player and the functions of the institution in society, workers in the social science end of the universe are much more attuned these days to the dynamics of situations and the paths that are opened up by differing models. It turns out that meaning and intention and the associated constraint systems actually count. The same institutional structure can generate very different outcomes outcomes when differently constrained and peopled by differently motivated actors. The Serbian army, the UN peacekeepers, the US military, and the Salvation Army are all military model institutions. But no reasonable person any longer argues that the similarity in structure leads to similarity in outcome. Purpose and ownership matter. The expectation that municipal telecommunications will resemble either governmental regulatory bureaus or monopoly-seeking corporations is myopic; municipal utilities fundamentally differently constrained and motivated.

Structuralist arguments ignore dynamics, ownership, and purpose. As they ignore the immediate practical advantages of municipal ownership. Local competition is merely local, granted, but, to the community that benefits, it is substantial. Competition in Lafayette has brought lower prices—it is now accepted wisdom here that you never have to accept any price increase you see on your Cox bill; and Cox has revved up its investment in the local network to the extent that it launched its _very first_ 50/5 package in the US way down in our obscure corner of the country.

It may have passed from the memory of the megapoli but the residents of large towns and small cities have vivid institutional memories of just how important factors like the railroad and municipal electricity were to the rise and fall of regional centers. It is part of the story Lafayette tells itself that early electricity and various bold moves to get a university and transportation hubs sited here were keys to future growth—and their lack have lead to the desolate downtowns of regional competitors. This isn't some sort of chauvinistic fantasy—the opinions of development specialists aside it is hard to deny the amounts of money that do not flow out of the local economy when gas, electricity, water, and now telecomms are locally owned and any "profit" that is structurally accrued flows back into local projects rather than the pockets of distant owners. (Add up your utility bills and then multiply by the households in your community; a small retention yields a big number even before it recirculates in the local economy.) The savings attendant to competition are a nice extra.

But the real kicker is local control and the constraints that muni ownership place on the organization. What this looks like in practice are differences in motivation: private firms and especially those that are publicly traded have a visibly shortened time line and exist primarily to return investment at a high rate in a short period of time. That's simply foreign to the municipal utility mindset. Munis think they've done a good job if they provide a standard product, extremely reliably at a cheap price. That has its pitfalls and I'd be the first to point them out but the point is that they _are_ different.  LUS Fiber has pursued all sorts of me-too policies that I don't care for. But I do recognize the situation they have been forced into (by incumbent-sponsored law that makes showing a paper profit an early necessity) and am willing to take that into account on a case by case basis. And it is easy enough to see the things they do not do such as no contract, a very high cap, unconstrained intranet access, and lower rates. Private companies see no reason to do such things. A muni sees no reason not to.

Public ownership means much, much less constraint on future action. We've always had our advocates of the idea of open networks (and I'd count myself among them) and one of the more effective arguments during the local fiber referendum was that the _only_ path to open networks with any practical chance to be realized was to fight for community control. LUS has no desire to be anything other than a utility; the provision of content is viewed as a necessary irritant. If, as advocates imagine, the larger US context changes to make open networks a practical possibility fiscally with demonstrable benefits to the citizen-owners there'd be very little effective resistance to making the switch. It is, folks were willing to concede, impossible to imagine Cox or AT&T going there willingly.

Citizens have already made at least one real difference: the unlimited intranet speed (effectively 100 megs) is due entirely to a few citizens demanding that it be explored. There was, yes, real resistance due to an unwarranted reliance on a consultant who didn't have a real clue. But the community was able to force consideration. (I did my part. [Editor - the blog.] And it happened. When the utility is stable enough to take a little risk there is already a quiet coalition in place to push on some digital divide and wifi-related issues. I'm not at all happy to wait. But I am very grateful that I know and can talk to the head of my telecomm utility and that I know several members of the "board of directors" (aka city-parish council) that sympathize with the larger aspirations. With Cox: NEVER. With LUS: Maybe.

It is well worth it to support muni telecomms.


Executive Summary                                p.6
The Importance of Self Determination for Lafayette, Louisiana        p. 8
“Do it Ourselves” Enables Free and Open Networks
as a Commons Infrastructure under Local Control                p. 11
“Do It Ourselves Networks“ as an Antidote to the
Tyranny of the Corporate State?                                p.  13
Public or Private; Craft or Science; and Other Issues of Funding        p.  16

A guifi.net Open House in Barcelona
Saturday May 4                                        p.  21

Part One
Building guifi.net from the Ground Up in Castellón     p. 25
Expanding guifi.net Outside of Catalonia
How a University Professor and His Colleague Have Grown
4,000 Nodes in Five Years                                    p. 26
How to Avoid Proprietary Software                            p. 28
Castellón Versus Valencia                                    p. 29
Network Serves its Users as Politically Neutral  Infrastructure        p. 34
What a Neutral Network Means                                p. 35
Is Guifinet to Be Run as a Democracy?                        P. 38
User Mail Lists                                            p. 40 Notes on Installer’s Training Session                            p. 41
Three Kinds of Students                                    p. 42

Trip to a Ridge Top to Explore Moving a Supernode p 45
Our “road crew”                                        p. 50

Guifi.net in Vilafranca del Cid, Castellón            p. 51
Part Two
How Guifi.net Runs at Scale
Gaudi’s Heirs Challenge Secular Power                        p.  55

Introduction to the LocalRet Problem                p. 56

LocalRet was a Learning Experience                 p. 57
It Was Necessary to Change the Basic Law                        p. 65

Sarcred and Secular: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia
 A cathedral unlike any other in the world.                    P. 67
Sacred and Secular in the 21st Century
Ramon’s Supernode                                        p. 69
What’s going on here? The Business Model                    p. 71

The Ecology of Guifi.net                             p. 73
Understanding the Network as a Complex Business
The Strategic Process                                    p. 77
A Way of Thinking                                        p. 79
Canvas                                                p. 82

The Operation and Governance of Guifinet
Reason for Having a Foundation Board & Qualifications for Members     p. 89
Guifi Share Technical Collaboration Groups                    p. 94
The Document Library                                    p. 96
The GLIR and the NOC                                    p. 97
Installers                                                p.100
Partners and Publicly Visible Accounting and Expenses            p.104

Promoting Fiber Optics in Calidentes                p.111

Part Three
AlterMundi  in Argentina                            p.114
AlterMundi Interview – May 6th                        p.116
The Goal of a Society Based on the Freedom of
Peer-to-Peer Collaboration                                    p.117
Altermesh – an Objective to Build a “Geek Free” Free Network        p.118
The Village of Quintana                                    p.119
Our Captive Portal                                        p.122
Community Radio                                        p.125
Connecting to the Rest of the World                            p.126
Delta Libre                                            p.127
Villages Seeded with the Educational Laptops                    p.129
Battlemesh                                            p.129

Part Four
Isaac Wilder and the KC Freedom Network        p.132
Free Network Foundation in Kansas City            p.135
The Trap                                                p.135 The Free Network Foundation                                p.136
Connecting for Good                                        p.136
Mutual Musicians                                        p.138
Black Economic Union                                    p,138
Reconciliation Services                                    p.138
March 2013 Clint Wynn Joins as Education Director                p.139
Tech Dojo                                                p.140
Mid Summer Connectivity Push                                p.141
The guifi.net Geeks Arrive                                    p.142
Photo Essay
The Mind Awakens                                    p.145
Engineering Studies for Lincoln Prep                            p.148

Going from Just an on Ramp to the Internet to an Individual
User Authenticated Community Network                        p.151
Weekly Partner’s Meetings                                    p.152
An Interlude from Isaac                                    p.154
Oakland Freenet                                        p.154
Mesh Protocol Issues as Background to Libre Mesh                p.156

Part Five
A Mutual Musicians Foundation
Renaissance for Kansas City
Anita Dixon's Vision for the Preservation of the
Cultural Heritage of Kansas City Jazz                        p.157
Editor’s Introduction                            p.158
A Cultural Renaissance for the Three Square
Miles in which Kansas City Jazz was Born        p.159
“Don’t You Go to that Dad Gum Union Hall!”                    p.159
I Have Kept the Promise                                    p.160
Straightening Out the Finances                                p.161
Why the Musicians Union Hall is so Special                        p.161
Our Photographic and Sound Recording Heritage as a Key to
Marketing and to Our Future                                p.163
Connectivity to the Internet                                p.165
We Are a Neighborhood Where the  Internet Should Be a Utility        p.166

Part Six - France
Federation of French Data Networks                p.168
The Federation of French Data Networks (FFDN)
If You Do Not Want Minitel 2.0, You Must Oppose the Large Providers    p.169
A human structure at the local level                            p.170
Network Commons License                                p.174
Laurent Geurby                                            p.177
DIY Mail list                                            p.177
A Call to My Readers                                        p.179
Ecuador Commits Itself to Open Commons Based Knowledge