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Build Your Own Internet: Free & Open Network Project


Have you started your own open source project yet? If you haven’t, maybe this article will motivate you to do so. Muktware has started a series of articles called Open Source Projects. The goal of this series is to motivate people to either start their own open source project or to join the one that already exists. Today we are publishing an interview with Mitar Milutinović from Slovenia and Valent Turković from Croatia who will talk about about free and open network project.

Benčić: Could you tell us about yourself?

Milutinović: Hi to everyone. I am Mitar Milutinović and I come from Slovenia. I am a grad student at UC Berkeley. Currently I am involved with the network project in different ways, such as promoting the project by writing articles about it and introducing it to the public. I also contribute in ways like brainstorming new ideas, testing and developing various aspects of technologies used in building and maintaining the network.

There are people, not only from Slovenia but also from all around the globe, working on this project. We collaborate with similar networks around the world by sharing knowledge, experiences and code. Most active participants in technology developments are students who share and exchange their knowledge and learn something new, especially in hands-on manner. On the other hand, there are many who are willing to contribute to the project without dealing with its technical aspects.

Turković: Hi to everyone. I am Valent Turković, an enthusiast and evangelist for free and open source software. I wear many hats – I am a hardware hacker and founder of the Osijek’s branch of Croatian Linux Users’ Association; I am active in the OpenStreetMap project; I work as a network technician (optics, network protocols, adsl, voice services, etc.); I am involved with Fedora project as an ambassador; and I am the leader of the Fusion Linux project. I am interested in domotics, smart houses and everything geeky. I am also a coordinator for Open network project in Croatia.

After listening to Luka Mustafa presenting this project at Open Festival 2011 in Čakovec, Croatia, I decided to join. I started promoting and building the network in Croatia. I, along with my colleague Valentino Šefer, presented the project at Croatian Linux Users’ Convention (DORS/CLUC 2012), and in Macedonia at geek/hack non-conference NSND 2012. Croatian project is part of the main project and its called “Open network project” or in Croatian ‘Projekt Otvorena mreža’.

Benčić: Could you tell us more about the project itself – who founded the project and when?

Milutinović/Turković: Idea of a free and open network has been floating around for quite some time now. There are many similar projects all around the world, some commercial and some non-commercial. The project, in its current form, was launched in Slovenia in 2009. From then on the project has been steadily developing. The project is organized in an open source manner, based on meritocracy and contributions with special emphasis on self-initiative.

We are guided by our belief that everybody should have free Internet connectivity, but the project is not strictly defined so there are many ways to go beyond its scopes. For example, we have extended this project by adding different types of sensors and we are also integrating parts of “Internet of things” machine to machine communication into this project.

We have developed open source software solutions to enable wide creation of the networks. One of the main solutions is nodewatcher, a web platform/system for planning, deploying and monitoring a network. Though it’s an automated process network, it can be operated and scaled very easily in a very bottom-up organic manner.

If we are talking about global interconnection this can be done because there are always some surplus capacities available, they just have to be redistributed. What a great way to bridge the digital divide.

So, this project materializes an idea that through collaboration we can build our own Internet infrastructure. In this way we can grow and extend connectivity to the Internet. Internet is not something which is manufactured, packaged and sold; it is a possibility to connect. This can achieved by creating your own connections and then interconnecting with others. If we are talking about global interconnection this can be done because there are always some surplus capacities available, they just have to be redistributed. What a great way to bridge the digital divide. We invite everybody – individuals, groups, organizations – to join this project. With a lot of small contributions we can make great things happen.

Benčić: What was your motivation to start a project like this? Where did the idea come from?

Milutinović/Turković: Various people participating in building the network join the project with different motivations. They join it because they find it interesting and because they can learn a lot during the process. This was also one of our main goals in the beginning – a new and a great way to learn a lot, especially from each other.

At first it was all just having fun with technology. Shortly after we discovered that it can be much more than just a game. It can provide real connectivity to the Internet to real people. In order to do that we had to develop necessary technologies. And not just to develop, but also to use and combine the existing ones and them wrap them all in a way that they are accessible to others so that everybody can see how the network works, recognize the ways in which they can contribute and track the statistics of the network and their own contributions. For example, we use a lot of data visualizations.

Benčić: What is the goal of this project?

Milutinović/Turković: The goal of this project is to provide free Internet connectivity to everyone. But we want to empower people to reach this goal by themselves. The advantage of this approach is that people learn more about the technologies they use and understand them better. You are not just a consumer any more but a prosumer – you consume but you also produce.

You become a creator, enbling everyone else to enjoy the fruits of your creation – a bigger network, better connection and faster information highway. Furthermore, in this way Internet connectivity itself stays in people’s hands. A more concrete goal is to develop all necessary technologies to the point where everybody can create their own wireless networks and interconnect them with other similar networks in vicinity.

Benčić: Can you describe technical aspect of the project?

Milutinović/Turković: The main component is a web-based platform called nodewatcher which allows people to see and understand the network. This is done by collecting various data like bandwidth used, number of clients connected, node health, and so on, from all the nodes in the network. All the data is then graphically displayed for everybody to see and thus understand how the network works.

Once you want to deploy a new node or join the network, you can simply do that through nodewatcher’s web wizard. You can select where you want the node to be and which device you have. Based on that nodewatcher then generates customized firmware image just for that particular device with all configuration already included in it. You just have to flash the firmware on the device (in most cases, a common WiFi router), plug it into the electricity, and optionally into an existing Internet infrastructure, and then the new node is deployed. After that the nodewatcher monitors the node’s behavior and in case of any problems notifies you.

You can see it deployed for wlan slovenija network.

Benčić: Does a person need to have any prior knowledge to join the project and if yes, what does she need to know?

Milutinović/Turković: We expect you to know how to plug things into electricity or deploy bigger antennas (if you choose to use them), drill holes etc.. So mostly construction work. Considering the IT part, our main goal is to get the project to the point where prior knowledge will not be required anymore. That is, a person who would like to start a similar network in his or her area would just need to install nodewatcher on a local server and invite others to collaborate.

Once such server installation exists locally, participation in deploying network’s nodes is easy and does not require much technical knowledge anymore. So currently we are working on making replication of our approach easier for others to build similar networks. We are also working on making the nodewatcher modular so that you can easily extend it with your own ideas and share them with others.

Benčić: In which ways can a person contribute to the project?

Milutinović/Turković: Technically skilled people can help us in developing the software and in expanding the network. Non technical people can help us with design (promotional materials, painting antennas, etc.), documentation, data structuring, visualization and translation.

Also anybody can financially support the project by donating to the project or by purchasing some of the products in our soon-to-be web store. In Slovenia you can also get ready-made kits which make the deployment of new nodes much easier.

Benčić: What is the best way people can contact you if they want to join the project?

Milutinović/Turković: If you are interested in the technologies being used the best source is our development wiki. Also, you can contact us through mailing lists or join us on our public group Skype chat. We use English for communication which makes international collaboration much easier. We use GitHub for source repositories. If you are interested in how our own network is deployed and how does it look like you can visit our main webpage or find us on Facebook. For Croatian side, there is a Google group and a Facebook page, too.

Benčić: What advice would you give to someone who is starting an open source project?

Milutinović/Turković: Our advice to those from non-English speaking countries is start with everything in English – code, comments, documentation and tickets. It is much easier to develop globally in this way. If you really do cool stuff you will get global attention sooner or later. Always maintain an open and steady communication with your community and encourage its members to get involved in the way they can do their best.

Be present and, if possible, try to collaborate with your local NGOs or similar organizations. It’s good to share your ideas and solutions, but also share the challenges and problems you’ve faced. Everything is easier with a little help from someone who’s been there and done that.

Sources & References:

For more photos, check wlan slovenija network’s gallery and blog. Photos from Croatia, see this gallery and:

We are looking for aspiring bloggers and journalists for The Mukt. If you are interested, apply now!

Jasna: We hope you got a motivation to start an open source project or to join Valent and Mitar in their projects presented here. We also encourage you, if you have any open source project that you would like to present, please contact us at this email.

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