Neighborhood Networks

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This page is about a proposal for building community groups that build and maintain Neighborhood Networks. For related technical information, see Mesh Node HOWTO.

The Internet and Net Neutrality

The Internet as we have known it is pretty great. People can use it for all sorts of wonderful things. Mostly, users of the networks involved can use the power of internetworking without the permission of the operators of other networks. This is in part because of a policy called Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality means that a network operator's routers treat packets more-or-less equally regardless of endpoints- specifically, that (for example) BigCoNetworks doesn't slow down everyone else's traffic in order to let BigCoMedia's packets go first. The opposite of Net Neutrality is sometimes ironically called "Internet Fast Lane" by telco lobbyists to obscure the fact that it involves delaying traffic rather than speeding it up.

Now that the United States Government is illegally occupied by a bizzare coalition of Millenialist dispensationalists and free-market cultists, most regulations that restrain corporations from trampling actual living people are under attack. Net Neutrality is one of these, and the incoming head of FCC has made a priority of ending Net Neutrality.

The Internet's infrastructure was built at a time when networking equipment was expensive and ate a lot of power. It had to be built by institutions wielding a lot of money. Building a network of wires led naturally to the emergence of a hub-and-spoke topology in many of the networks that comprise the Internet (though not the Internet overall, since the protocols involved don't necessitate it.) This topology lends itself to systems of control- hence how the NSA was able to tap much of North America's Internet traffic by placing taps in a single room.

Because access to the Internet is controlled by a few companies dealing with their customers individually, these companies are able to dictate the terms of the rents they extract for access to the networks we all need to go about our lives. When the Internet was just nerds, porn and cat pictures, this was (barely) acceptable; now it is a tax on society which yields no benefit to society, extracting large increments of value from the economy for the telco giants to sit on like broody dragons.

The New Networking

These days networking equipment is cheap, and so is service provision (your house is probably chock-full of Web servers you didn't pay for, install nor configure yourself; hopefully none of these is serving Web pages to the public Internet, but they could easily do so.) Not only that, but the software for setting up and configuring networks and services keeps getting more powerful and easier to use. It can't get cheaper, because the best of it is already not only free but Free.

In the late 1990s, IEEE 802.11 created a standard for radio-based Ethernet. Now a majority of extant devices either come with a radio network interface built-in or can have one plugged-in via USB or some other expansion port. Most of these devices support different modes from the ones

The City of Seattle has a body called CTAB, the Citizens' Technology Advisory Board.

CTAB advises the municipal government on technical matters.

CTAB does not mention Free Software anywhere in their published materials that I have found. Koanhead (talk)

(a search for
"Free Software"
yielded some references to no-cost software, but none to Freedom-respecting software.)

CTAB has a list of 4 remits listed on their web page navigation sidebar, one of which is Digital Inclusion. Synthesizing and the contents of a paper document (source apparently unavailable) distributed at a recent PechaKucha event (no link, because their website is awful) Digital Inclusion emcompasses:

  • digital equity
  • broadband adoption efforts on connectivity
  • skills and devices and technical support
  • device recycling and refurbishment

These goals seem laudable, and they are reachable (and then some) with Freedom-respecting software. This approach would save money, help more people, and be cheaper and easier both to implement and to maintain.

What we can do about it

At a recent Group:LibrePlanet_Washington meeting, koanhead proposed a set of overlapping projects which can meet all these goals in a Freedom-respecting manner. It might be nice if CTAB and the municipality can be persuaded to buy-in, as some initial funding could make these projects considerably easier to implement; afterwards they can become self-supporting if properly managed. Buy-in from the City might not be easy, so we can approach individual neighborhoods, or even smaller groups if we can muster the necessary bodies to do that leg-work.

The projects, and their connection to Free Software

  • Neighborhood-level networking - Free Software has all the necessary components to make this work, and Freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for security and robustness: the owners and maintainers of these networks will need access to the source code in order to make the networks function according to their desires, and will also need the ability to share their changes with their neighbors.
  • Neighborhood-level hardware refurbishment - Old PCs, routers and other equipment can be rendered useful again by running Free Software on them; Freedom is what makes it possible to pare existing software down to a footprint that will work on older hardware.
  • Neighborhood-level recycling - Recycling doesn't necessarily require the use of software at all, but realistically some form of tracking and inventory control might be desirable. It's probably possible to run cumbered software to accomplish these things, but why spend money and bind yourself to unfavorable licensing agreements when EIS and GFDB already exist?

Why anyone would want these things

  • Local networking: If you operate your own network, or if your neighbors do so, you have the opportunity to know and trust your network operator. Your network can protect you from surveillance by outsiders (this can be done automatically, and is easy to set up) and from bad network actors both within your local network and outside it (this can also be automatic.) You also get the ability to use your network in the way you like, without artificial restrictions on bandwidth, protocols, or services. Local networks can be set up to distinguish local sites from remote ones, so that you can tell if the business whose website you are looking at is across town or across the country.
  • Local refurbishment: Every neighborhood in Seattle has an unknown but large cache of old equipment sitting in storage. It's illegal to just throw most of this stuff away, and "recycling" it in the usual way is a pain, notwithstanding the City's efforts to make it easier. If your neighborhood has a thrift store, they probably receive tons of stuff they can't use nor re-sell. With a bit of knowledge and some people power, this junk becomes useful equipment and parts for local low-income folks and projects.
  • Local recycling: We can't trust recycling vendors, even certified E-Stewards, unless we can inspect every aspect of their processes more or less constantly. Companies are understandably reluctant to allow this. Local recycling efforts can be much more transparent, even entirely transparent if the people doing the job agree. Local recycling also means local reclamation of value: a medium-sized copper heatsink weighs about 100 grams and can be scrapped for about a dollar a pound; a wastebasket full of them can net about $20. Electronic devices contain lots of other valuable substances, though not all of them are so easy to harvest.


The proposed project(s) are modular in nature. The plan is based on a bottom-up approach, building infrastructure and skills in individual neighborhoods and then connecting those neighborhoods together in order to achieve Metcalfe value (in information interchange) and economies of scale (in processing of physical things).


Responsible recycling of electronic devices is important in several ways.

First, some of the materials that compose these devices are mined or harvested by slaves. Slavery is morally repugnant, massively ecologically harmful, and economically irresponsible. The mines operated by slaves and owned by slave-masters dump disproportionately-large amounts of various pollutants into oceans and rivers, affecting all of us. By reclaiming as much of these materials as we can, we can avoid contributing to the enslavement of human beings and to the concomitant environmental poisoning; if we can perform such reclamation at a large scale then we may depress the market in such materials, rendering the use of slaves to extract them unprofitable.

Second, the materials contained within some electronic devices are toxic and need to be kept out of the standard waste stream. There exists an unfortunate but widespread practice of simply dumping these devices into landfills, either in the US or abroad. This causes heavy metals and other toxins to leach into groundwater and eventually into peoples' drinking water supplies. Since the recent debacle with Total Reclaim, it's evident that we cannot trust even certified "e-Steward" vendors to do our recycling for us. Instead of forcing this externality on indigent people, we can turn it into positive value for local municipality.

Third, nearly all 'dead' electronic devices contain re-usable parts (notwithstanding the usual warning stickers claiming the opposite) which can be harvested, sorted and sold on to local hobbyists in kit form or used in local electronics classes. Availability of free or low-cost components makes these classes more available for low-income populations. Dismantling of devices and harvesting of 'through-hole' components can be easily accomplished at neighborhood workshops by unskilled volunteers with semi-skilled supervision. Some special equipment is desirable but not entirely necessary.

What's needed:

Equipment list

Necessary equipment

  • PPA: Eye and hand protection
  • Hand tools
  • Adequate ventilation

Optional equipment

  • Resistor bank for grounding capacitors
  • Desoldering equipment


koanhead and others have prior experience in dismantling devices. Training materials are available at and elsewhere online. Here are some examples:

Unlike other aspects of the program, the materials extraction phase might be difficult to decentralize. The processes and materials involved can be somewhat dangerous, and the use of an industrial facility might be necessary for things like extracting tantalum from surface-mount capacitors. Fortunately, most of the components that would prove difficult to recycle are tiny and can be safely stored at least as long as the item from whence they came.


Refurbishment of old or broken computer equipment into usable equipment is also the first phase of the recycling process. This can be done in a decentralized manner, each neighborhood can use a small space (Free Geek Seattle used a small classroom) to store and to work on hardware. These are also learning spaces, so they should be accessible to the public whenever activities are happening.


  • PPE as above
  • Hand tools
    • Screwdrivers
    • Hex drivers
    • Pliers
    • grounding straps


Training materials are available at These cover Safety Training as well as training in the dismantling process itself.


Each neighborhood workshop should have at least one Ad-Hoc capable Wireless Access Point providing access to its public network to the neighborhood. It should also provide, at low or no charge, smaller wireless-networking devices to build out the network into the local area.

Ad-Hoc mesh networking is necessary for security, robustness and availability. A mesh network is not subject to centralized monitoring or interference by bad actors. It can seamlessly re-route data in the event of a plurality of nodes going down. It can provide multi-link transport for higher on-demand bandwidth without increased latency.

Many mesh networking protocols exist which are Freedom-respecting software. This proposal deliberately does not require nor recommend the use of a specific protocol. Instead neighborhood workshops are encouraged to experiment with different protocols and setups and work out interoperability agreements between themselves. Neighborhood networks should provide at least one TCP/IPv6 networking gateway for compatibility with the global Internet and for local interoperability.


Ad-Hoc mode is a standard mode available to all Wi-Fi radios which are compliant with the 802.11 family of standards. Some consumer radios do not offer Ad-Hoc mode due to flaws in their Freedom-disrespecting firmware or driver software; some of these radios can be made to enable the mode via various means. More powerful radios are available, such as the Ubiquiti NanoStation, which cost a few hundred dollars to purchase and can use entirely Freedom-respecting software. Such radios can also be built at local neighborhood workshops using refurbished components.


LibrePlanet Washington Group:LibrePlanet_Washington has several members with experience in wireless mesh networking using various devices, software and protocols.

[TODO] List of training materials online:

Skills training

Free Software is dominant in many of the most lucrative and fastest-growing segments of the IT sector.

LibrePlanet Washington is committed to, among other things,

  • Educate: Produce and distribute informational resources on free software and free culture.
  • Empower: Provide support and guidance for people using and contributing to free software.

The group has several members with a great deal of experience with software skills training. Free Software training resources are ubiquitous online, most of them available under Free Documentation licenses which permit them to be freely distributed: thus such resources are also nearly ubiquitous offline as well.

koanhead is willing to spend every waking hour in providing such training if necessary, even if it means sleeping in the street and starving to death. This is probably not necessary since a) other LibrePlanet members and other folks from different organizations are probably also willing to help; and b) training trainers to train trainers doesn't require training training trainers.

What We Offer

  • Planning assistance
  • Hardware and network technical support
  • Software development
  • Person power (at least one full-time person's worth)

What We Need

Neighborhood engagement

People make it go

We can't do any of this without help from the citizens of Seattle (and whichever other municipalities want their own local networking, training, recycling and distribution infrastructure). Above all we need our neighbors to join in with us to build their thing in their neighborhood.

Some stuff also

In particular we need some space in each neighborhood. One large room, and a place to mount an antenna, is enough to get started. Electrical power will need to be provided, unless we or the neighborhood volunteers can come up with local generation.

How City of Seattle can help

Strictly speaking, we don't need anything from the City. With a fairly small amount of people power we can make something happen on our own. Once any one of these programs is up and running, a neighborhood or other stakeholder group could apply for, which could be a lot of help.

If the City wants to help get the ball rolling, a small initial grant would be enough to make it happen. This grant need not be monetary- what we need is space, people, and electricity. If the City can provide these things, or money to purchase them, the rest can be bootstrapped.

How to get there

How to approach the City


A delegation from LibrePlanet, a neighbor could approach CTAB with a proposal like this one, and ask for money.

Personally I have problems with this method, and strongly prefer a decentralized, neighborhoods-first (or even block-first) approach. Koanhead (talk)

Via neighborhoods

Instead of approaching CTAB directly, we can instead try to solicit interest among the neighborhoods themselves. When interest is established and once efforts begin to build the necessary structures, the neighborhood organizations can apply for CTAB's Technology Matching Fund (and there are other neighborhood funds available through other City departments as well).

This will require more legwork on our part:

  • Finding neighborhoods with an identifiable group able to assist in local organizing and to make decisions about local resources (meeting rooms, rooftops etc.)
  • Contacting these groups, making a pitch, and then following up as necessary until we have some volunteers to work with, at which point the Real Work begins.