How blockchain can mobilize a community to provide Internet for each other and create a new sharing economy
My goal and dream for the past few years has been to replace Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through the power of the community. So I set out a personal and professional journey to start OISP, which stands for the Open Internet Socialization Project.
I thought I was being clever with an initialism like that, but then I started saying it out loud in conversation. Even so, I can’t think of a more concise set of words to describe what my team and I are trying to do.
The core principle is simple: Members of a community own the means for delivering Internet to each other. They also profit from that delivery.
This is what I mean by Socialization. Shared costs, but also shared profits. We, the community, share in the cost and effort of being our own ISP together. We also share in the profit of that communal utility.
What does this look like? Instead of paying ISPs, you pay your neighbor for offering Internet access to you. Money stays in the community and Internet ends up being much cheaper.
Before we dive into the details, let’s ask an important question. Do we really need to change the way we get Internet?
The Future of Communication
Over the last 25 years, American taxpayers have paid $400 billion ($5000 per household) to make sure that we get Internet. We paid for the infrastructure that ISPs use and we still find ourselves with some of the slowest Internet in the developed world. On top of that, we don’t even pay a fair price for it.
This ends up being an example of socialized costs and privatized profits. ISPs own that infrastructure that we, the taxpayers, paid for, and yet they reap exorbitant rewards. Now that they own the infrastructure and are billion dollar corporations, they lobby to weaken net neutrality even though the population is overwhelmingly for a free and open Internet. Again, all of this is to privatize profits at the expense of the taxpayer.
I think it’s important to remind ourselves that this is the future of the Internet we’re talking about. We’ve had the ability to communicate with anyone on Earth in a matter of milliseconds for all of 0.5% of human civilization. Right now we are at the crossroads where the future of how humans will learn, connect, feel, and create a living will be decided. What if any aspect of that goes against the bottom line of the ISPs? Can we count on them to look after our digital liberties when they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit? That’s a lot of trust to put in any corporation.
Suppose ISPs go the way of maximizing profit. If customers don’t like ISPs throttling their connection, or selling their browser history, then surely they can shape the industry by taking that money elsewhere, right? This is the hallmark of a free market and how consumers hold industries accountable — with their wallet. Internet access is considered a human right, so it would be unreasonable to go without it. That leaves taking your money to a competitor. But what if competition is limited? The power of our cumulative wallets that we’re supposed to have is worthless if we can’t take our money elsewhere.
If customers can’t take their money elsewhere, then that accountability is gone. When the future of communication is at stake, accountability shouldn’t be a ridiculous thing to ask for.
Unless we do something differently, it’s fair to say that our power is limited. After all, ISPs have a lot of money, competition is limited, and they own the infrastructure.
This all sounds incredibly bleak, but there’s a curious route for defiance rooted in a simple question: Who says ISPs have to own the infrastructure?
Can we come together with the technology we have today to deliver Internet to each other so we don’t need them? These are the questions OISP aims to address, and we’re starting with communities.
What and How
The team at OISP is working on a network we call Andrena. This network consists of people in a town or city acting as nodes in a wireless grid to help deliver data to each other.
Andrena can be summed up in four points:
- Users own all the wireless hardware necessary to form a large network
- Management of the entire system occurs on a public blockchain
- All users seamlessly transact with each other on the blockchain directly, meaning the network can function without our company
- Wholesale Internet prices are brought to the consumer. Any margin is divided among community members who help contribute to the network.
Let’s expand on these points to see what shared infrastructure looks like.
Wireless Hardware as Infrastructure
When thinking about Andrena and the infrastructure/hardware you can imagine something like your wireless home router on steroids. It still provides a hotspot at home, but it’s also designed to interconnect with other users that have their own hardware. This is what we mean by delivering Internet to each other. If you’re connected to your neighbor and he’s one step closer to Google.com than you are, he’ll deliver that data to your devices.
In the process of getting Andrena setup in a community, it makes sense to minimize the amount of hardware needed. It’s ideal if this network can service everyone while minimizing the amount of money people need to spend on extra hardware. If your laptop or phone is under your neighbor’s coverage, then you don’t need anything extra at home.
How much new infrastructure/hardware is needed depends entirely on population density and geography. If an apartment landlord is part of the Andrena network, then a single hotspot can cover all of her tenants and they don’t need anything extra. It’s important to note that her tenants don’t contribute to the infrastructure — they use it.
From here on out we’re going to be focusing on the people that contribute to the infrastructure: the contributors.
Any two contributors (think you and a neighbor’s house at the end of the street, or two nearby apartment owners) in the network can connect as long as they have pairwise hardware that can talk. Whether it’s airMAX, airFiber, MikroTik, Mimosa, etc., Andrena is agnostic to these devices. When choosing, our organization helps facilitate this process depending on how active a contributor wants to be.
And if you’re a contributor actively giving Internet access to others, it makes sense to be rewarded for it.
Following the previous example, a landlord who wants to provide Internet to her tenants can spend $1000 upfront on hardware. Her tenants can join her wireless network (without any extra hardware) and pay her directly for the data they consume. This approach offers residual income for the landlord and can save her tenants thousands on home Internet costs.
Meanwhile, someone with a well-placed corner apartment can invest $100 on hardware and end up paying $0 per month on an Internet bill because of the offset from providing Internet to others.
These examples show how someone can contribute to the network with their hardware and get rewarded for doing so. We can also see that the infrastructure is decentralized. It’s not owned by one company, but rather the users.
More for the Local Economy
In the examples just mentioned we pay each other for sharing out Internet. This is the sharing economy model, also known as collaborative consumption. Think Uber, Airbnb, etc., applied to Internet use.
In this sharing economy the underlying utility is owned by the users. In ride sharing, users own the cars. In our model, the infrastructure to deliver Internet to your neighbor is owned by the community.
Our goal with Andrena and this user-owned network is to create a new sector of the local economy. Food, transportation, etc., are all a part of the local economy, so why not put Internet into that mix? This comes with a layer of complexity because not everyone knows about or has the time to configure networks.
Our focus is on eliminating that complexity so that money can flow in the sharing economy. Any average consumer should be able to seamlessly integrate, without knowing about the technicalities, and get rewarded for contributing.
By making it easy for anyone to contribute, we aim to create the ideal conditions where competition increases quality and drives prices down.
If one local cab company takes the long route every time and charges you a high price, you can go with a different one. Similarly, if one node in the network is demanding excessive rates or isn’t delivering on his share of data through oversubscription, it should be easy for another one to compete with lower prices and dedicated data.
This approach brings competition back into the mix and gives power back to your wallets.
The best part about this sharing economy is that it takes the profits that ISPs siphon out of a local economy and pumps it back in. We’re talking about more money for local residents, property owners, and small businesses, all of whom are much more likely to spend that money in their local economy. All of that money we spend on our Internet bill with ISPs, does it ever get used to buy coffee at a local shop, or groceries at a local grocer?
Everything I’ve described in this section is centered around fairness. The more you contribute, the more you get rewarded. If you want to rip off your neighbor, tread carefully because he could easily replace you. We have to remember that we’re facing off against some of the largest titans in any industry. If the community is to beat the ISPs, we have to be fair to each other.
Blockchain at the Core
Fairness comes at a price, and that’s trust. If you can’t trust the quality of service you’re getting, or the price you’re being charged, then it’s not really a fair system. It’d be ideal if you didn’t have to trust your neighbor at all to still be able to organize with him to form this network. The technology that is at the core of the Andrena network needs to be one that can operate without trust.
Andrena uses blockchain — the same technology that powers Bitcoin and Ethereum — at its core to ensure fairness without trust . It allows Andrena networks to form and organize, without a central authority (like ISPs) and that’s an important point for us.
“Distributed ledgers are systems that enable parties who don’t fully trust each other to form and maintain consensus about the existence, status, and evolution of a set of shared facts” — Richard Gendal Brown
Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger, and it fits perfectly for creating a network in a community. This network has to coordinate a lot of information (networking, financial, etc.), and everyone needs to agree on the current state of the network. As stated, users shouldn’t have to trust each other to organize together, and blockchain solves that problem.
Additionally, OISP wants the Andrena network to be something that can endure. If our company falters, how can communities all over the world still provide Internet for each other? What if a community wants to come together to organize their own network and enrich their economy without us? If we are the central authority of all these networks, we can’t give an adequate answer.
As a company, we have to relinquish power. We can’t just be a replacement to the ISPs. At a very fundamental level, we have to give power back to our users so that we can do things differently. The technology needs to be decentralized, just like the infrastructure, and that’s where blockchain shines
A lot of our articles in the future will be dedicated to the specifics of how blockchain works on Andrena, as there’s a lot of details to explore. One of the biggest areas is its use as a practical medium for financially backed collaborative consumption.
OISP has a commitment to open sourcing the code needed to run this network, along with the code needed to maintain the sharing economy. An open source commitment combined with blockchain gives our users a very interesting promise: If we become just as bad as the ISPs that you hate today, you’ll be able to come together to replace us, and you’ll have the technology to do so.
More About Nodes and Users
Everything above is the gist of Andrena: users own wireless hardware to deliver Internet to each other, and it’s backed by a sharing economy that runs on blockchain. Still, there’s a lot of details left out, and here are some of the quick hits.
Some nodes in the network will be gateways to the greater Internet. These are users (or us) that maintain connections to wholesale Internet providers. The price of Internet at this level is much much cheaper than what we pay for today via ISPs.
Some Internet sharing models out there rely on using existing consumer ISPs as the gateway. That won’t work here because selling that data is against the terms of service.
Wireless devices can be installed on roofs, on windows, or completely out of Line of Sight(LoS). Smaller devices come with window and wall mounts, whereas the larger devices (largest being about 4 feet) are best put on roofs with non penetrating roof mounts.
To verify that nodes are providing their agreed amount of bandwidth a decentralized technique is still needed. We will explore this in much more detail in the coming articles.
Since we are assuming nodes don’t fully trust each other, we have to account for snooping. While HTTPS solves this issue, users have the option of creating an encrypted tunnel between their devices and the gateway nodes (or even further upstream), ensuring that no one in the middle can see any plaintext traffic.
About Andrena The Company
Feel free to stop reading here if you’re only curious about the details of Andrena as a wireless network.
My team and I are in the process of deploying an Andrena beta in Princeton, NJ. I know, not really an area that needs low cost Internet. Nevertheless, we are targeting all of the low income areas in our first round of deployment.
We hope that a successful round of deployment will allow us to branch out to other areas including Trenton, New Brunswick, Hoboken, and Brooklyn.
The No Skim Promise
The margins between what the consumer pays and what the gateway pays for wholesale Internet are strictly divided among the users in the system. Andrena’s business model doesn’t include making money by skimming from the top of every transaction.
Our company also focuses on strategic deployment. To give a tangible example, we use satellite data to determine LoS quality between a new user’s location and other nodes in the network. This saves a lot of time when it comes to deploying since you don’t need someone to show up at your house and test the signal. It also allows us to run simulations on new communities to determine which areas fit best.
Movers and Shakers
There are a lot of titans with brilliant solutions in the space Andrena finds itself in. We draw inspiration from them in varying capacities and would like to mention them.
- guifi.net — A large scale community powered network in Spain with 33,000 nodes, showing that something similar can be done in the U.S.
- Roofnet — One of the first city-wide meshes that was implemented in Cambridge. This article isn’t complete without paying them homage.
- Open Garden — Pushing the true vision of achieving an Internet powered by everyone’s mobile devices. The ultimate solution in the making.
- Open Mesh — An excellent mesh solution using the B.A.T.M.A.N protocol, showing just what you can do with OpenWrt.
- Ubiquiti — Offers some of the best wireless hardware out there. A lot of our network uses Ubiquiti devices. Their airPrism technology is a game changer as crowding becomes a concern in the ISM band.
- MikroTik — Wireless hardware with extensive low-level and CLI documentation. Their products make our solutions very customizable.