Commotion comes out of beta, vying to create a broadband commons

For the last two years the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute has been working with communities from Detroit to Dharamsala to set up community broadband mesh networks that sidestep local ISPs and even government internet restrictions. Now OTI is ready to take its technology, called Commotion, out of beta. This week it released Commotion 1.0 to the general public and invited communities worldwide to build and manage their own neighborhood networks.

Commotion was originally designed as a means to circumscribe government censorship and surveillance on the internet, but the scope of the project quickly expanded to include extending access to areas where broadband was unavailable or unaffordable. Commotion combines technologies like the Serval Project’s mesh networking and Tor’s identity shielding software to create secure distributed networks made up of smartphones, routers, servers and other nodes.

Open Technology Institute Commotion network

In Sayada, Tunisia, local volunteers have used Commotion to created a free Wi-Fi network covering 70 percent of the city’s 16,000 residents. Because the Tunisian government bans public access to the internet through public Wi-Fi, the community hosts on offline version of Wikipedia, local maps, a library of e-books and chat applications on its intranet servers. Community members can also use the network to share their internet connections with other members.

OTI is working with schools in Somaliland and India to connect their campuses, allowing students and teachers to share local education resources. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, community organizers used a beta Commotion mesh to keep the neighborhood connected when Superstorm Sandy wiped out internet infrastructure in 2012. And in Detroit, the Cass Corridor district has become a testbed for Commotion technology, which the Institute hopes to use as a training ground for Commotion project organizers in other communities.

Commotion is the brainchild of OTI director and New America VP Sascha Meinrath, who has some radical yet compelling views on the state of broadband. According to Meinrath, the availability of broadband is artificially restricted in the U.S., but if everyone shared a portion of their bandwidth with the community, then everyone would have access to affordable broadband wherever they went.

Connecting a Commotion network to the internet in Somaliland
Connecting a Commotion network to the internet in Somaliland

“We’ve been programmed to be greedy,” Meinrath said in an interview last summer. “We’ve been taught to think we should not make a commons out of our communications even though it would be to everyone’s benefit. If you were to suddenly flip a switch and open up every Wi-Fi access point in the ten to 15 largest cities in the U.S., everyone in those cities would suddenly have free ubiquitous communications everywhere.”

All photos courtesy of the New America Foundation