Building and Operating Free Networks - The Commons

Building and Operating Free Networks

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The course is intended to give students practical knowledge of how to build a computer network to serve their neighborhood, community, city or beyond. Taking a holistic approach to building and maintaining networks, we examine the best practices of successful network operators. Our primary textbook will be Wireless Networking in the Developing World, which is available for free online, or in hard copy for $13. We'll think about how best to plan, build, administer, and sustain networks that serve their communities. The focus will be primarily on wireless networks, because they are the cheapest and easiest to deploy, though the information in the course is largely applicable to wireline networks as well. This course assumes a working knowledge of network theory, as developed in the FNF's Theory of Networks course. This course is open to all, but we do suggest a theory course first for those that are new to networks.


Module I: Community and Licensing

Without a supportive community and coherent framework for cooperation, free networks cannot exist. Even before you begin to plan the actual construction of your network, it is essential to understand the political and economic mechanisms that make free networks work.

Lesson I: The Network Commons License

The NCL is a legal framework that precisely defines the terms and conditions that apply to Free Networks. Any network operator must understand and be able to interpret and explain its provisions.

Required Reading:

Suggested Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 3: Licensing and Regulation

Lesson II: Participants Education

Free Networks don't have users, they have participants. For many of those participants, the Free Network may be their first experience with the online sphere. For many more, it may be their first look into how networks actually work. It is wise to put programs in place to give some structure to these new experiences, and help participants make the most of the network. We'll look at how to run successful educational programs in conjunction with the network.

Required Reading:

Lesson III: Sustainability & Safeguards

Without careful consideration, it is all to easy to find yourself in a situation where your network's success becomes its downfall. We'll cover strategies to ensure that your network grows in a sustainable way, and how to make sure that you're not put in a position to compromise your ethics or enjoyment.

Required Reading:

  • Creating a Life Together, pp. 4-7

Module II: Network Planning

Once you understand the social challenges, but before you can begin building, it's is essential that you have a well-thought out plan for your network. Creating and sticking to a plan is often what distinguishes successful and unsuccessful operators. The plan includes what areas you want to cover, and to what degree you'd like to cover them, what equipment you will use, and how you will go about connecting and configuring that equipment.

Lesson I: Footprint & Scope

The first stage in planning a network is to figure out the geographic area that you'd like to serve. This could be as small as a single block, or as large as an entire state (or the world!). You'll also need to know what kind of service you intend to provide. Well-defined, realistic goals are the key to a good network plan. We'll learn how to use Geographic Information Systems, Public Domain data, and a few other tools to come up with a solid plan.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 10: Deployment Planning

Suggested Reading:

Lesson II: Architecture

Once you know where and how you'd like to serve, you can begin to think about how to put together a network that will accomplish your goals. Managing your use of spectrum, building an efficient backbone, and making sure that people can connect depend on a sound network archiecture.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 8: Mesh Networking

Suggested Reading:

Lesson III: Hardware

Once you know the shape of your network, it's time to figure out the building blocks. There are a large number of options for radio, router, and switch hardware. They key is finding a balance between cost and effectiveness.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 11: Hardware Selection

Suggested Reading:

Lesson IV: Numbering & Protocols

While some hardware will come preconfigured, most operators choose to use hardware that leaves them free to decide on protocols at various levels of the network stack. We'll break down the pros and cons of the popular routing algorithms. At the same time, we'll help you figure out how to optimize address delegation so that you both allow for growth, and avoid wasting address resources.

Required Reading:

Module III: Network Building

Building a reliable network is not just about picking and configuring the right gear. How you install the equipment can make a world of difference, especially in harsher or more volatile climates. In Module III, we'll learn how to construct safe, durable, and maintainable physical infrastructure.

Lesson I: Masts, Mounts & Structures

In most cases, you want your radios to be as high off of the ground as possible. Getting them up there without risking the devices, the structures that support them, or your own safety requires knowledge of which materials and practices are suitable for your situation.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 13: Outdoor Installation

Suggested Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 12: Indoor Installation

Lesson II: Power Delivery

A radio is no good if you can't turn it on. Mains power is good, but finding a safe place to plug in can be challenging, and sometimes it just isn't available. You'll get a rundown of the best way to find and maintain electrical power for your devices.

Required Reading:

Suggested Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 14: Off-grid Power

Lesson III: Data Cabling

While the bulk of your network will probably be wireless, there will doubtless be situation in which you need to run data cables. Often times these cables will carry power to your devices, and connect to other devices at the same location. Picking the right cable, and learning how to install it will prepare you to safely put radios in places you never thought possible.

Required Reading:

Module IV: Services & System Administration

Once you've got your network up and running, it's time to make it useful, and make sure it stays that way. The possibilities for new and creative applications of your network are boundless, but it helps to know what others have accomplished. The more useful the network becomes, the more it will be viewed as an essential utility. Learning how to deal quickly and efficiently with any problems that arise is part and parcel of becoming a skilled operator.

Lesson I: Internet Service

The first thing that most operators will want to do is find a way to connect their network to the global Internet. There are many ways to do this, and the best option will depend on your situation. We'll give you ideas of where to look, and what to do once you've found a provider.

Required Reading:

Suggested Reading:

Lesson II: Local Content

Free Networks are different from conventional networks in that they encourage the creation of local content. The needs of your community will certainly be unique, but the tools and methods used to create local services will most likely be similar to those employed elsewhere. Building services is beyond the scope of this course, but knowing where to look is a good first step.

Required Reading:

Suggested Reading:

Lesson III: Device Management

Keeping tabs on the health of network devices is a critical duty for operators. Often times, network outages can be avoided through proper instrumentation and observation of conditions in the network.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 16 Network Monitoring

Suggesting Reading:

Lesson IV: Disaster Planning

Even in the largest networks in the world, the unexpected does happen. Expecting the unexpected means that when disaster does strike, you can skip the panic, and get straight to addressing the issue at hand.

Required Reading:

  • WNDW Chapter 15: Maintenance and Troubleshooting
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