Sunday, November 3, 2013

The "OtherNet"

DESIGNconcepts :: We are all well aware of the Internet. It is a marvel of modern technology offering people around the world an unprecedented means of communication. The allure of the Internet, getting involved in it, and even directing its progress is strong and can be found at the heart of countless amazing hacks.

And as interesting as it is to work on the Internet, how much more interesting would it be to build your own Internet ... an "Othernet." This would be literally the "other" Internet, made up of ad hoc local networks and solutions, linked up to run parallel to the existing Internet.

Not only would this provide redundancy, therefore increasing the resilience of our communication networks, but it would provide an opportunity for armies of hackers, teachers, and students to get directly involved in the technology we use on a daily basis. Consider it the IT equivalent of gardening vs. shopping at the local supermarket -- just as gardening allows us to connect ourselves with the food we eat, the Othernet could connect us with the technology we otherwise may take for granted.

Stepping Stones + Building Blocks of the Othernet... 
CB radios are a cheap, easy, and fun way to get into personal/local comm.
CB (citizen band) radios have provided people with ad hoc communication networks for decades. From recreational to commercial and defense uses, CBs allow users to stay in touch regardless of surrounding infrastructure (or a lack thereof).

Radios are a cheap, bare-bones audio-only solution for local communication and have their limitations but are still an essential cornerstone of human communication.

I'm not suggesting we use CBs to build the Othernet -- but I am suggesting that you buy a pair of handheld CB radios and discover the joy of accessing a means of communication you don't need to pay monthly fees for, and that you can take with you anywhere you go without worrying about "coverage." 

Easy and fun -- visit PirateBox's website here.
The PirateBox is a local file sharing setup that includes a chat client. A single PirateBox is placed in a room, and every device within range can connect to its WiFi signal and both upload and download files to its internal storage.

It is perfect for hackerspaces and ad hoc collaboration. HeliosLabs uses one to share files for both classes and design projects.  PirateBox is a great first project for those seeking to get into building local communication networks.

The one currently in use at HeliosLabs can be found described in greater detail here. It will be projects like PirateBox, easy enough for the non-network administrator to put together, that will drive the creation and expansion of the Othernet.

Serval works, but it is a little trickier to implement than PirateBox.

The Serval Project installs an Android application onto your smart phone using its own radio capabilities to send data, voice, and text.

HeliosLabs has given this a go too. It works, but can be unstable at times. It is also limited by the number of applications that are available to use within a Serval mesh -- but offers a lot of promise.

It is still undergoing tests and experimentation, but even just getting it to partially work, in addition to a fully operational PirateBox, is a very rewarding/educational experience.


Imagine an Othernet w/native open source software, parallel to the Internet.
The MESHER is a proposal for a not-yet-realized local communication solution. It would be a combination of both the PirateBox and Serval, with some added features.

The MESHER box would act as a transmitter receiver, connecting to other MESHER boxes to create a mesh network. Software would include open source, MESHER network-versions of popular online applications (Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, LINE, Gmail, etc.). This would be a mini-Internet with all the capabilities of the existing Internet, but available anywhere you go, and created with the very phones, computers, and devices you yourself use or make.

Projects like PirateBox, Serval, and MESHER may benefit greatly from the latest from Arduino -- the Yún board which includes WiFi capabilities. Both the developers behind PirateBox and Serval have already begun studying how it might be used to extend the capabilities and range of their current projects.

Local MESHER networks could be extended using dedicated terrestrial relay stations, and could even be linked via cubeSats in geosynchronous orbit. Progress in both local networking projects like PirateBox and Serval, combined with advances in cubeSat development may eventually converge to create a hacker's Internet -- the Othernet. SketchUp users can get a model of the cubeSat featured in this graphic in the SketchUp 3D Warehouse here.

CubeSats are growing in both popularity and capabilities. These devices are already being used for communication applications.

Geosynchronous orbit would be ideal, providing 24 hour coverage for a specific region of the Earth, linking local MESHER networks together over a wider area and connecting isolated users with others beyond the range of their MESHER boxes.

The final piece to the OtherNet would be linking CubeSats together in orbit to provide global coverage.  This of course is quite a ways away but we can see a rough roadmap as to how to get there. Already hackers are working on all of these building blocks individually. If we see potential final products that offer greater capabilities and benefits when combined, it provides us with more incentives to work harder and collaborate across broader lines to reach such goals.

The Othernet would provide us with cheap, open communication capabilities, serve a multitude of purposes, and most importantly be driven, designed, and developed by the very people using it.