As we've seen with recent protests in the Middle East, the information superhighway can all too easily be brought to a halt. Governments from Egypt and Libya to Yemen and Syria have, in recent months, cut Internet access to control troublemakers who utter such obviously dangerous terms as “freedom” or “basic human rights.” Most connections to the Internet are far from open commons, rather they are controlled by only a few entities, so putting the brakes on communications is an easy thing for a government to do.
But for those fed up with political repression, there is a new, simple, low-tech way around this. Bypass these entities completely and set up an alternative, more open Internet that cannot be intercepted or shut down.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation as well as the personal savings of group members, residents of Jalalabad, in partnership with FabFi, a project that has close ties to MIT's Fab Lab and the university's Center for Bits and Atoms, have built a small-scale, open source system to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of several miles. And the main components can be built out of trash. Some boards, wires, plastic tubs, and cans can build you a FabFi node. The design of the node purposefully uses things that are widely available wherever the project takes place. Users in Afghanistan discovered that instead of requiring specialty made reflectors, they could use the metal from USAID vegetable oil cans because it turns out to be the right malleability and size for these reflectors.
Wireless routers are mounted on these homemade reflectors and covered with wire mesh. Another router-on-a-reflector is set up at a distance. The two routers then create a network that provides Internet access to the whole network of reflectors. The devices run on power generated by a car battery, so the networks can go off the grid and be packed up and set up elsewhere if necessary.
FabFi consists of 45 nodes transmitting a wireless signal as far as 3.7 miles with connection speeds as fast as 11.5 Mbps and currently covers most of Jalalabad. While the distance and speed may seem limited now, FabFi has created a scalable model of low-cost broadband Internet access that can operate independently of government control and can be deployed by anyone, anywhere where local infrastructure will not permit. This openness and shared community resource makes FabFi most worthwhile.
FabFi continues to grow with plans to leverage the provided connectivity to build online communities and locally hosted resources for users in addition to MIT OpenCourseWare.
And FabFi is a completely open source system. FabLab Jalalabad invites you to participate in the growth and development of their field-proven system by downloading the technical documents and trying FabFi for yourself. If you have changes, questions, suggestions, or improvements, you can email fabfi at fabfolk dot com.
This week FabFi announced on its blog they are looking for dev/test help for an upcoming new deployment and upgrade as well as input on FabLab make-able weather enclosures.
Start participating now and follow further developments on the FabFi Blog.