Winter 2004-2005

The Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network
by Sascha Meinrath
Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network logo

Beginning in 2000, a group of software programmers, radio techies, university researchers, system administrators, entrepreneurs, and social activists in central Illinois began discussing ways to set up a community-operated wireless network to provide Internet and intranet services to local citizens. The early planners imagined a communications system that would allow citizens to buy bandwidth in bulk from a high capacity backbone and then distribute it wirelessly through a network of rooftop antennas, or nodes. The result would be a low-cost, ubiquitous cloud of wireless connectivity for local communication. In simple terms, it would mean greatly expanded high-speed access to the Internet for citizens, city government, local business, and local schools. Beyond that, within the grid (or mesh) of nodes, a local network platform would also be created, a high-speed intranet with the potential to serve as a conduit for data, audio, video, and voice. It would be built and administered by the community it would serve.

Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network map
Overview of Champaign-Urbana
Community Wireless Network

After two years of extensive work, the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN) set up its first multi-hop, bandwidth-sharing, wireless "cloud" (an area of wireless connectivity composed of at least two interconnected wireless nodes). From this modest beginning, CUWiN has grown to become one of the foremost open-source, dynamic, mesh R & D wireless initiatives in the world today – with a mission to connect more people to Internet and broadband services; develop open-source hardware and software for use by wireless projects worldwide; and, build and support community-owned, not-for-profit broadband networks in cities and towns around the globe. CUWiN is a non-profit organization and gives its software away for free to anyone interested in setting up wireless networks – relying on grants, voluntary donations, and volunteered programming time to build the project. Since 2002, CUWiN has deployed additional nodes in the community and dramatically enhanced the networking software. Today it is the most sophisticated open source mesh wireless routing software in existence, a system that has solved some of the scaling problems that have fettered the most successful of commercial operators.

CUWiN's initial deployments brought major press coverage and created opportunities for over two-dozen organizations to partner with the project. Programmers and engineers from around the world joined a growing list of developers. The hardware and software designs benefited enormously from this collaborative period of innovation. In the summer of 2003, CUWiN received an exploratory grant from the Threshold Foundation to buy additional equipment as a proof-of-concept for deployment in communities in developing countries. Since that time, CUWiN has been building a new generation of hardware – chosen for its durability (the nodes are solid state with no moving parts), price, and suitability for network applications. The Threshold Foundation grant allowed CUWiN to double the number of nodes in the test-bed network, experiment with different hardware, and standardize our system specs – setting the stage for the numerous improvements CUWiN has made since that time.

As of this writing, CUWiN has grown to over 175 members and a test-bed network of three wireless "clouds" serving over twenty different locations: the first cloud had nine nodes, is roughly oval shaped, and spans a half-kilometer area; the second is composed of four nodes in a roughly triangular shape spanning several hundred meters; the third cloud is composed of five nodes spanning several city blocks. Within the local community there is a sizable waiting list to join CUWiN, and we are currently scheduled to build out a minimum of 32 nodes by early 2005. In addition, the City of Urbana recently allocated funding to build an additional 25 nodes in the downtown area. CUWiN is currently adding one node approximately every week; eventually, as isolated wireless areas grow, distinct clouds will merge to create a single trans-neighborhood, interconnected wireless area.

In March 2004, the CUWiN project received a $200,000 grant from the Information Program of the Open Society Institute to develop the network as a model for transfer to other communities worldwide. In July 2004, the Center for Neighborhood Technology began using the CUWiN software to help bridge the digital divide in North Lawndale (near Chicago). Currently, over 25 different communities worldwide are looking at CUWiN's software. In fact, anyone can use CUWiN's software and, as an open source project, people are encouraged to get involved with CUWIN, help develop CUWiN's software, and/or build their own Community Wireless Networks. In August of 2004, CUWiN co-hosted the first ever National Summit for Community Wireless Networks at the University of Illinois, which drew over 200 wireless developers, implementers, and spectrum policy analysts from across North America.

CUWiN exemplifies a growing movement to develop non-profit, open-source solutions to wireless networking, even as the commercial telecommunications industry jockeys for position in what they see as a booming future market. Community Wireless Networks offer extraordinary social benefits because of the nature of the technology, and because public service is their explicit purpose. At a basic level, they increase the number of speakers in the public sphere by decreasing the costs of Internet connectivity and lowering barriers to access. The intent is to provide service for the lowest possible costs, not to extract "market prices" for broadband. Further, the community mesh network model is far more than an ISP; it offers not only connection to the Internet, but it also provides an intra-net, a local network for sharing community media, educational content, or public services. With the bandwidth capacity in these networks, every citizen can become an Internet broadcaster or a publisher. Using the local intranet, communities can set up forums for political debate, artistic display, or educational fare. Streaming video and audio from local events – from town council sessions to PTA meetings to the annual jazz festival – can be easily accommodated. Administered properly, this virtual public space will recreate a commons accessible to all citizens. Public safety and social service groups, local schools, churches, and municipalities have embraced this technology (especially because of its enormous cost savings over many other infrastructure options). Not only are these institutions able to use the entire network, they are encouraged to build their own local applications.

Election Night 2004: Live results accessed from the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network
Election Night, 2004: Live election results accessed from
the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network

A core mission of the CUWiN project is to connect end-users to broadband services – to both create network access to web services for our entire community and establish a model that can be replicated in countless different communities around the globe. CUWiN plans to provide web resources for its service community. This passage has been modified from the original print edition

Wireless developers and implementers from around the world are watching this cutting-edge research and development initiative to see how they can use it in digital divide solutions they are implementing. Community Wireless Networks have the potential to create state-of-the-art, non-profit, media systems provisioned by the publics they serve. Community Wireless Networks are intended to be built, operated, maintained, and expanded by the local people and communities that use the system. They offer jobs, technical training, and the empowerment of contributing to community development from the ground up. Though system design will vary with geography and population density, community wireless technologies are explicitly transplantable. They have the capability to spread from town to town, adapting services as they integrate with the needs of a given community. In comparison to their commercial counterparts, Community Wireless Networks pass far more of their cost-savings on to their customers and local communities; because their purpose is maximizing the public good of local constituencies, Community Wireless Networks develop more innovative applications for their users, allowing everyone to become media producers and information disseminators.

There is a substantial global potential to meaningfully affect the lives of countless people and communities. Developing countries that lack the wired infrastructure of last generation communication technologies can jump directly into wireless solutions. Rural areas cut off from urban economic centers can find new avenues for progress and improving quality of life. And the educational opportunities available using these networks will greatly enhance the work of international aid workers and developmental non-governmental organizations. This is a transformative technology; like the Internet itself, the possibilities are limited only by our own imaginations.

Sascha Meinrath is Project Manager and President of the Acorn Worker Collective, Project Coordinator for the CU Wireless Network, Policy Analyst for the Free Press, and an AFCN Advisory Council member.

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