Open Source Effort Will Deliver Low-Cost Wi-Fi for All

One of the great things about open source software is that it doesn't just bring a wealth of benefits to businesses. Rather, by making low-cost, high-quality software widely available to everyone, it also has the potential to change lives around the world.

Most of us are familiar with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort to put low-cost computer hardware in the hands of the world's poorest people, but a like-minded project that's less well-known aims to do something similar with Internet access.

The goal is to develop low-cost, open source Wi-Fi software, and on Wednesday Geeks Without Frontiers--an initiative of the not for-profit Manna Energy Foundation--announced the final development of just such a solution.

'Millions More People'

Facilitated by a grant from the Tides Foundation, the new open80211s (o11s) technology will enable the development and rollout of large-scale mesh Wi-Fi networks for roughly half the cost of a traditional network, says Geeks Without Frontiers. Designed to use existing hardware to minimize cost and maximize availability, it's expected to be particularly important in areas where legacy broadband models are currently considered to be nonviable economically.

Built primarily by Cozybit, the technology is managed by Geeks Without Frontiers and I-Net Solutions and sponsored by Google, Global Connect, Nortel, OLPC and the Manna Energy Foundation.

“By driving down the cost of metropolitan and village scale Wi-Fi networks, millions more people will be able to reap the economic and social benefits of significantly lower cost Internet access,” explained Michael Potter, one of the founders of the Geeks Without Frontiers initiative.

The video below explains the project in more detail.

Two Authentication Methodologies

Technologically speaking, nodes and antennae will work together in these new mesh networks to extend connectivity and the Internet to a wide area. The networks are self-healing, so that if one tower goes down, the software self-assesses and automatically re-routes to keep the network at full availability.

Manna Energy/Geeks Without Frontiers
For security, meanwhile, the new Wi-Fi software uses the strongest authentication methodology known to exist for mesh networks, the group says. Specifically, in addition to Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) to protect against offline dictionary attacks, it also implements Authenticated Mesh Peering Exchange (AMPE), which enables multiple authenticated nodes to encrypt traffic among themselves.

The combination of high-level security and open source code is designed to help ensure that new networks based on o11s are safer and yet significantly cheaper to deploy.

The next step for the project is to complete the current open source implementation of the upcoming IEEE mesh standard 802.11s, which is expected be ratified in the fourth quarter of this year. In the meantime, the latest version of the software is available for developers on the o11s site.

A World of New Possibilities

So what does this mean for those of us in the business world who are already fortunate enough to have Internet access? In a nutshell, it's going to mean a very different world on the Internet, populated not just by the “haves” but increasingly by those who were formerly the “have-nots” as well.

That's a very good thing, not just for all those coming on board at last--who will suddenly find themselves faced with a new wealth of opportunities--but also for us in the business world, by virtue of the dramatically increased numbers of potential customers and markets.

It's going to require new sensitivity on our part, to be sure, as we must increasingly realize that many of the consumers seeing our online ads, say, may live not in suburban subdivisions but rather in village huts.

But the opportunities will be there, not just for advertising and communication but for new types of products and services as well. This would be a good time to start thinking about what your company will do with this fresh new world of possibilities.

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