FabFi: Cell Network in a Suitcase

The State Department is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to the New York Times.

United States officials say the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country. It is intended to offset the Taliban’s seemingly ability to shut down the official Afghan services.

The effort has picked up momentum since the government of President Hosni Mubarak shut down the Egyptian Internet in the last days of his rule. In recent days, the Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that country’s Internet, which had helped protesters mobilize.

In an anonymous office building on L Street in Washington, four unlikely State Department contractors sat around a table. Josh King, sporting multiple ear piercings and a studded leather wristband, taught himself programming while working as a barista. Thomas Gideon was an accomplished hacker. Dan Meredith, a bicycle polo enthusiast, helped companies protect their digital secrets.

Then there was Sascha Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age 37. He has a master’s degree in psychology and helped set up wireless networks in underserved communities in Detroit and Philadelphia.

The group’s suitcase project will rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.


CUWiN (the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network) has several projects in the pipeline.

The New America Foundation is helping to fund the distributed, open source telecommunications system. Handsets with the application installed can communicate with each other by calling the phone number of other phones in the Serval network.

The FabFi project in Afghanistan was not one of those secretly funded projects described in their NY Times article, but FabFi has similar goals. It is an open-source WiFi system using common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics to transmit WiFi across distances of up to several miles.

MIT’s FabFi project uses OpenWRT on all of its routers. Communities can build their own wireless networks, enabling them to access online educational, medical, and other resources.

FreeAntennas.Com has free parabolic reflector templates that you can glue-stick aluminum foil to and fold together, while Linksys routers can be flashed with OpenWRT for enhanced public access WiFi hotspots.

A FabFi base station, using common Wi-Fi routers flashed with free OpenWrt software, cost about $60. The nodes have a range of 1-3 miles and each can join the FabFi network. Fabfi differs from most mesh platforms because it is specifically designed for high performance across multiple hops using paired or multi-radio devices.

Meinrath may not get such a warm reception at the State Department if the organization decides to come after domestic AT&T, Verizon and Sprint networks using a White Space box. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Jim Forster writes Dailywireless that a core group formed Wireless Networking in the Developing World in Dec 2005 in London. Their “Limehouse BookSprint Group” consisted of Jim Forster, Rob Flickenger, Elektra, Tomas Krag, Carlo Fonda, Ian Howard, and Marco Zenaro. They picked Rob Flickenger as the editor to create Wireless Networking in the Developing World (pdf), a free book about designing, implementing, and maintaining low-cost wireless networks. Since 2008, WNDW.net has served over two million downloads of the book. WirelessU.org is an education project, writes Forster.

Last year at Burning Man the OpenBTS-based cellular network provided free cellular service to anyone with an ordinary GSM cell phone, says Network World, using a similar system.

“We make GSM look like a wireless access point”, says one of the project’s three founders, Glenn Edens. It costs pennies on the dollar and it’s completely legal, explains their FAQ (Slide Share Presentation).

When attendees get into range and power up their phones, the system sends them a text that says “Reply to this message with your phone number and you can send and receive text messages and make voice calls.”

The technology starts with open source software, OpenBTS. It is built on Linux and distributed via the AGPLv3 license. When used with a software-defined radio like GNU Radio, which provides the signal processing runtime and processing blocks to implement software radios, it works with any standard GSM cell phone.

It uses open source Asterisk VoIP software as the PBX to connect calls, explains founder David Burgess.

The system is only “as big as a shoebox,” Edens says, and requires a mere 50 watts of power “instead of a couple of thousand” so it is easily supported by solar or wind power, or batteries. It performs as well as any other GSM base station which has a maximum range of 35 kilometers and a typical range of 20 kilometers.

Wireless mesh networks forward traffic to and from gateways which may or may not be connected to the Internet. The ‘Wireless Battle of the Mesh‘ brings together people from across Europe to test the performance of different routing protocols for ad-hoc networks, like Babel, B.A.T.M.A.N., Open Mesh and OLSR.

Commercial WiFi products using mesh networking include Open-Mesh, Meraki and UniFi. PowerCloud can manage multiple sites from a single webpage — no matter how many $70-$100 APs you have, or where they’re located.

D-Link’s first cloud-managed outdoor access point, the new DAP-3525 Air Premier N Dual Band Exterior is powered by CloudCommand. You can provide free Wi-Fi with a splash of advertising or offer different tiers of pay-as-you-go service, all managed and provisioned from a single, internet connected laptop.

The broad goal on Liberationtech is to get as close to zero configuration as possible. Similar groups include the Serval Project (servalproject.org), Gnu Radio (gnuradio.org) and OpenBTS (openbts.sourceforge.net), FunkFeuer
(funkfeuer.at) and OLSR (olsr.org), the (torproject.org (http://tech.chambana.net/projects/commotion).

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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