Aaron Kaplan

Aaron Kaplan

Founder of Funkfeuer FREE NET, Vienna

On January 28, 2011, the Egyptian government, after three days of massive anti-regime protests, mostly organized through social networks, switched off 93 percent of the nation’s Internet. The top-down vulnerability issue of the web was obvious: most individual users are connected to others only through their Internet service provider (ISP). Block this link, and Internet access disappears. An alternative option is beginning to emerge in the form of wireless mesh networks, that are simple systems that connect end users to one another and automatically route around blocks and censors. Computer scientist Aaron Kaplan is one of the founders of the FunkFeuer initiative, an Austrian wireless mesh networking project that plants WiFi antennae on rooftops, used as a key element in a large "liberation technology" program by the American government and now part of the EU funded project "Confine - Community Networks Testbed for the Future Internet" that has partners such as the Fraunhofer FKIE Institute and Universitat Politecnica Catalunya. At Falling Walls Kaplan will present potential and limits of this open source technology that is realizing the dream of a free Internet.

Breaking the Wall of Internet Censorship. How Peer to Peer Wireless Mesh Networks Are Replacing Centralized Connectivity


So, thank you very much for having me here. It is a great honour, and actually I am a little bit shocked almost to talk about my hobby project, which is just a hobby project; it is not my daytime job—just something that we started as a group nine and a half years ago. It carried on since then, and there has been this driving motor behind this all the time. So, I don’t know exactly if I deserve this, being here, but anyway I hope you bear with me. I am not probably the first one to have thought this idea that— when I was 14—the wall was falling, the change was coming, and we actually felt something new. I think if Bert Brecht in 1932 had a very similar idea that, if we can have two-way communication systems, if people could talk back on the radio, the world would be a different place. So, just imagine: what if every person in Germany, Austria, Europe, at that time, had a radio to talk back—maybe had a printing press, maybe had a cinema studio? We would have lots of parodies of the rise of Fascism or so. The world would have been a different place. People wouldn’t be able to follow blindly in just one direction. I think this multitude of opinions, this multitude of voices, is really the core of what I want to talk about. We have good news for Mr. Brecht. We built that—by now, at least I believe so—in small scales. We have the Internet, first of all, but the Internet is still very centralised. It is frighteningly centralised. If you look at your Internet connection from your Internet service provider, your Internet service provider will give you a DSL modem, and that will connect to some switch. That switch will, as in a tree, have multiple other DSL modems connected to it, and it will be a very central place. So, you knock out that place, you knock out many customers at once. Of course, then at a higher level, the ISP will cross connect. However, we took a totally different approach here. As you can see, in this graph of this mesh network, this is the sort of the centre of our network here—the green stuff in the middle. These are nodes, as in graph theory, nodes describing essentially Wi-Fi, rather small things like, for example, this one. The standard Wi-Fi router that everybody can buy in a shop is nothing special; it is very cheap. It is 40 Euros maybe, or less by now. We can reprogram those and create this network of densely interlinked nodes, and these nodes are connected by edges, and on the edges you can see (you probably cannot see) labels, edge labels, saying how strong this connection is, how much packet loss we have etc. So, this is sort of—you get the impression of the structure of the network. It is like a spider went crazy; there is no structure.

But how did it all start? We started out, as I said, roughly 2003, 2002 in parallel to other groups—like many discoveries, these things happen in parallel, independently, and then thanks to the Internet actually, we were able to exchange knowledge and just boosted our research. So, in Vienna, we had the FunkFeuer group; in Berlin you have the Freifunk group, which are doing very similar things and improving their technology for years. So, we started with simple reprogrammable routers, and we put them into boxes, put them to the roofs, connected antennas to them, etc, and made them connect to each other. But how did it really start? We had this really nice experience of being in my office space at that time; we had multiple laptops. People installed this so-called mesh software on their laptops. This software allowed the laptops to talk to each other directly. They didn’t need any other infrastructure—no access points, no separate access points. The laptops would talk to each other. I will explain it soon how this exactly works, but we realised: one person was on that floor, the other one was in the staircase, the third person was on the floor below. We realised we could actually communicate directly. Then it made “click”: we are the infrastructure. This is really the new discovery here that with very cheap mechanisms we can create our own infrastructure. Ok, by now we are little bit more professional. This guy has some protective stuff here, and please note the birds on the antenna; that is how you get them accepted. People love birds and pictures on antennas, yes. This, by the way, is the first, to my knowledge—I might be wrong here—the first international community, wireless link, between two countries: between Austria, Syria, and Slovenia. Slovenia by now has a connection to Croatia. I know there is a wireless network in Serbia; so, I want them to connect. This would be so symbolic. I would really love to see that very soon.

Ok, where are we right now with FunkFeuer? FunkFeuer is now a network in Vienna, Graz, and other parts of Austria. We have roughly 240 roofs, 600 devices on those roofs; it connects vast areas. Essentially, if you want to have Internet connectivity in Vienna, and you have access to the roof level, and you can see, because you need line of sight with the Wi-Fi signals, you can connect to our network. You will get access for free. All that we will ask you is to cross connect to at least two other nodes. That is a very important property of the graph. Ok, the same has been repeated in other parts. But how does it really work? As I said before, we had this experiment with the laptops. How does it work? You have here, one of those Wi-Fi routers with our special mesh software installed. This software is called OLSR, Optimised Link State Routing. It is a typical representative of so-called manet—Americans usually pronounce it in a French way; I don’t know why—mobile ad hoc networking. This essentially allows this router here to talk with that one here on any path that it can choose. So how does it work? First this one says, “Hi, I am here. I have the address: 1093152”, and the other one will say, “Hi, I am also here. I am 109313.” Over the course, they will repeat this; they will say “Hi” all the time to each other. Over the course of the time we have some statistics, how much packets are lost during this conversation. So they will have some link quality here between them. By the way, this one also tells this one, “By the way, you can reach all these nodes here via me.” So router 1093152 will store this in his routing table and essentially say, “Ok, whenever I want to go to that node here, to 109310, I will send it over 13. That is very simple. This happens periodically. So, essentially our convergence time, until the network learns where every node is, is in the order of seconds. So, you can move them around; it is absolutely no problem. You can put them on cars; you can put them on vehicles, airplanes, whatever you like. Actually, I know that exactly this manet technology is used in drones. It is not only us who is using that. Why do we do that? For us, the main purpose is to have an independent mechanism of communication. Because when we are talking about breaking down the wall of censorship, actually what we are talking about is circumventing any wall, in any way that we can.

Imagine this software now installed on smart phones in Tahrir Square. Internet gets cut off, demonstration, GSM network gets cut off, but they still have Wi-Fi; they can still connect to each other. They can still transmit messages to each other. They can still stay connected. This becomes a very, very strong and important mechanism for organising protests, for example. Everybody was talking about Facebook and Arab Revolution, but Facebook is a very centralised system. If you don’t get access to Facebook, because your Internet connection is turned off, what do you do? You cannot do anything. But with this, actually you can still stay connected. So, I believe that in a democracy, it is our very obligation to have independent paths of communication. I think that is why we do it. But, as I said, we are not the only ones doing that, and we are not the only ones improving the mesh protocols. First of all, I mentioned already, in Berlin you have a very old and very strong group, the Freifunk community. And by the way, if you use the Internet here in this room, you are connected over the Freifunk network. You didn’t notice it, but actually it works. In case one link fails, it will automatically switch to a different link. You might notice some lag but not very much. But we are not the only ones. The best example that I know is in Spain. Well, my friends would say it is not Spain; it is Catalonia. This is the whole region around Barcelona. It has 18,000 nodes at the moment, and they are growing exponentially. Essentially, what they are doing is they are not so much focusing on circumvention, because we don’t need that so much in Europe right now at the moment. They are focusing on bringing Internet to the rural areas, which are underserved, where telefonica is too expensive, or the farmers think telefonica comes from Madrid, and they want to have something from Barcelona. Ok. Essentially, they connect the whole area there. It is a very hilly area; so it is ideal for having a sender on some hill and connecting to the next town. This is extending this network in small pockets of networks all the way to Africa. There are networks in Africa right now. Ok. Same in Athens: Athens wireless is 5,000 nodes. It is essentially a network in itself. Internet access in that case is not even required. They have so many internal services; they provide so much for their own community that they had to do a search engine for their services. So, you don’t Google there; you have wireless Google. The services range from anything from tracking ships to movies, whatever you want. They also connect to islands, and they are about to connect to the next largest network in Thessaloniki. That I think is 500 or 700 kilometres—something like that.

Good. Another use case of these networks: as I said, in Europe, at the moment, luckily, we don’t need this circumvention approach. If you have the cable system here, use the cable system. It is just more reliable than any wireless system. But, recently, we saw where it was really practical: in a disaster recovery area. This picture is taken from Red Hook in New York, which was hit by Sandy just recently. This is Jonathon installing a small and cheap Wi-Fi router. This was still operational after Sandy hit, and it gave people Wi-Fi access and needed access to communication to inform their relatives, etc. Why am I saying this? Because usually when a natural catastrophe hits, our GSM-based networks survive only a certain period of time. You have generators, but they might be under water. You have batteries, but they will last maybe only 8 hours. So, these systems are super easy to install; they don’t need much power. You can operate them with photovoltaic cells forever, and they just provide connectivity. So, this talk wouldn’t be great without elephants. So, David, thank you for the inspiration. This is the Thai approach to having mesh networks and elephants are definitely very good for floods. Ok, so, that is pretty much for me. Thank you.