Non-profit Group Releases Open Source Mesh WiFi Network Software

The non-profit group Geeks Without Frontiers today released open source software based on an upcoming WiFi standard. It lets Linux machines be their own WiFi network, no hardware required.

The software is based on the not-yet-ratified IEEE 802.11s, an extension to the 802.11 WiFi standard. 11s creates wireless "mesh" networks. Ratification is expected to happen by Q4 2011. 11s allows multiple wireless devices to connect with each other without having a hardware access point between them and to "multi-hop" to reach nodes that would otherwise be out of range.

Geeks Without Frontiers is an arm of the not-for-profit agency, the Manna Energy Foundation. Manna's goal is a lofty one. It wants to "positively impact the lives of one billion people in the next ten years" through the use of what it calls "social entrepreneurship." For instance, Manna is working to bring clean, sustainable water supplies to Rwanda and Kenya.

With that as a backdrop, the motivation for open80211s was to bring affordable Internet connections to rural, underprivileged areas, such as the villages of Kenya, the group says. But open source means open and those wanting to use the software to build their own mesh networks can certainly do so.

The project was funded with grants from the Tides Foundation and Google, with contributions also from Global Connect, Nortel and One Laptop Per Child. Most of the work for open80211s was done by folks at Geek and I-Net Solutions primarily through the graces of Javier Cardona of Cozybit, who wrote much of the code, and Dan Harkins, who contributed much of the security. Geeks claims that the mesh networks created by open80211s will be highly secure. It uses strong authentication to allow only authorized individuals entry and encryption, to keep prying eyes from seeing the traffic.

The open80211s project was also accepted into the mainline Linux kernel and is included in release 2.6.26 and beyond. This means that patches and bug fixes will be pushed through to the project's users when they get updates from their distribution makers and they won't have to manage that stuff on their own. The latest development code is available in the wireless-testing portion of the kernel.

The software is freely available now with a community-scale pilot test soon coming in Northern California, the group says.

This project is not the only version of open source 802.11s being worked on. For instance, the WiFiMesh working group of FreeBSD is working to get 802.11s implemented in FreeBSD. But since 802.11s hasn't been ratified yet, and the implementation included in the kernel is, necessarily, based on an earlier, non-ratified draft, these early implementations can't yet talk to one another.

Eventually, such inconveniences will be worked out and a group of users armed with nothing but their Linux-based devices should be able to create a low-cost, large scale wireless network that can share an Internet connection. The hope is that municipalities in rural areas will be able to serve their residents with Internet access at extremely low costs.