Bringing Internet to villages

It will be exciting to adopt the Guifi.net model for India, where many live in remote and inaccessible areas


Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

When Oracle engineer Ramon Roca returned from the US a decade back to settle down at Gurb, a village 75km away from Spain’s capital Barcelona, he found the countryside had no Internet access.

Roca could work from a city 8km away, but did not want to. Instead, he put up a wireless relaying modem where Internet was available and created a line of sight over the terrace of his house, bringing the Internet home wirelessly.

The people of Gurb got excited: Could they do the same? Yes, said Roca; just buy the wireless modems to relay and receive signals and a little rooftop antenna to connect the wireless waves. One after the other, his neighbours started buying their own network equipment and enjoying Internet—free of cost.

The network started growing as each person contributed to the wireless network and its extension. Internet was free if you wanted, or you could pay if you wished. Thus was born Guifi.net. (Guifi is for Gurb Wi-Fi and .net is for network.)

From Roca’s rooftop, Guifi.net has grown to become the world’s largest wireless mesh network owned by none, or more precisely, owned by each person who joined it. It has more than 25,000 nodes with at least 2.5 persons per node, spread all over Barcelona. It is over 45,000km long, adds 150 nodes every week and is used by individuals, families, corporates, governments, not-for-profits, academics and even small Internet service providers.

I was in Barcelona last week where I had a chance to meet 48-year-old Roca. Despite his day job at Oracle, he still devotes considerable time for Guifi.net, helping it grow, stay independent and become more robust. He believes telecom network infrastructure is not something which should be owned by one entity, but by every member who uses it. Guifi.net is a living example of this philosophy.

Roca believes it’s easy to find solutions around technology; it’s the people who are complex. If there are collectives, the infrastructure is stronger and more sustainable, says the engineer, still passionate about technology and what it can do.

Visit Guifi.net, and you will find nothing there which is not open or transparent. You can check up-to-the-minute statistics on how many people are using it, who has joined it and when, who is paying how much, who is using for what reason, what’s the traffic, how many nodes are working and how many down. On Google Maps, you can see its network coverage in green over the whole of Barcelona like a cloud shining in green.

Guifi.net says it is “open, free and neutral, because it is built through peer-to-peer agreements where everyone can join the network by providing his or her connection, thereby extending the network and bringing connectivity for all”. Anybody who joins Guifi.net signs up via wireless commons license, which is inspired by the free and open networks principles. These principles can be summarised as:

* You are free to use the network for any purpose unless you are affecting network availability and freedom;

* You are free to know how the network works;

* By joining the free and open network, you are helping to extend the network in the same conditions. Considering how much of India lives in communities and clusters in remote, inaccessible areas, I am quite excited about the possibilities of adopting the Guifi.net model for India. The least I can do is at the wireless networks we have created in several villages. We are going to make them grow rapidly by having them not just for the community, but also by the community. Let me know if you would like to join the mission.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of mBillionth Award. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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