New America’s Open Technology Institute Releases Commotion 1.0 Mesh Networking Toolkit

Published:   December 30, 2013
WASHINGTON DC – The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) announced today that it has completed Beta testing and upgrades of its groundbreaking mesh networking toolkit, and is launching Commotion 1.0 in time for the new year. The launch represents the first full iteration of the technology, which makes it possible for communities to build and own their communications infrastructure using “mesh” networking. In mesh networks, users connect their devices to each other without having to route through traditional major infrastructure. A fact sheet on how Commotion works is attached in PDF format.
 
Commotion 1.0 is an open-source toolkit that provides users software and training materials to adapt mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks so they can connect and share local services. A mesh network can function locally as an Intranet, but when one user connects to the Internet, all users will have access to it as well.
 
“The technology behind Commotion is designed with the users in mind, specifically to enable them to connect with one another, access information they may not otherwise have access to, and take existing community social networks into the 21st century,” said Thomas Gideon, Director of OTI’s Technology Team. “The release of Commotion 1.0 is exciting for us not only because of the technology itself, but because of the great things communities will be able to do with it as they are able to provide access to broadband where it may not otherwise exist, where it may be cost-prohibitive, or where it may be blocked. This opens up tremendous opportunities. Whether a community loses traditional infrastructure because of a natural disaster or as the result of a repressive regime, Commotion provides a locally-owned alternative for diverse communities in the United States and around the world.”
 
The launch follows extensive testing through previous developer releases that allowed technologists at OTI to run Commotion in a variety of settings and under a wide range of scenarios. OTI has deployed beta versions of Commotion with local partners in the United States in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC, and around the world in Dharamshala, India, and Dahanu, India; in Somaliland; in Berlin, Germany; and in Sayada, Tunisia. These collaborations generated countless improvements, including new user interfaces, more flexible configurations, and support for more types of devices to run Commotion.
 
“A mesh network is stronger when more people participate, so we designed Commotion and the Commotion Construction Kit so an entire town or neighborhood can take part in designing, building and using the network. It's family friendly technology,” said Joshua Breitbart, OTI's Director of Field Operations. “In turn, each participant in our trial networks has taught us critical lessons, whether it was a student in Sayada suggesting uses for the local network, a technologist from Maharashtra testing an early version of the software, or an elder from Detroit sharing wisdom about community organizing. All of that knowledge is encoded in Commotion 1.0.”
 
Commotion 1.0’s new features include:
  • New User Interface: User interfaces are now easier to use, more powerful, and more closely integrated with the rest of the software.
  • Multi-Interface Support: Commotion now supports more flexible configurations of devices that include multiple wired and wireless interfaces. This means support for more routers, and for the deployment of more complex networks.
  • Greater Stability, Less Resources: Commotion 1.0 reduces processing and storage overhead on embedded platforms, resulting in greater stability and smaller software images.
  • Better Serval Mesh Support: The Serval encrypted overlay mesh is now more closely integrated throughout the software, and provides an API for developers to create truly end-to-end encrypted applications on top of a mesh network.
  • Easier Upgrades: Commotion 1.0 now supports retaining configuration between upgrades, so that upgrades hold on to existing configuration when the software is updated.
  • Expanded Router Platforms: Commotion 1.0 supports an expanded number of router platforms, including Ubiquiti, TP-Link devices and more platforms in active testing.
  • Commotion Construction Kit: An extensive “do it ourselves” guide to building wireless mesh networks.
  • Android and Linux Clients: Commotion 1.0 will include a compatible Android client for selected handsets, and a desktop Linux client, as well as a beta Commotion client for Windows all expected to be available in early 2014.
 
“The launch of Commotion 1.0 would not have been possible without the collaboration of our partner organizations and forward thinking funders who have supported this endeavor and understood its potential for more than twelve years,” added Sascha Meinrath, New America Vice President and Director of the Open Technology Institute. “I’m grateful for their support, and I applaud OTI’s Field and Technology teams who have painstakingly worked on every detail and developed every relationship to make this launch a success.”
 
Commotion 1.0 lowers the barriers to starting community networking wherever you are in the world. Earlier deployments of Commotion are already making an impact in the United States and across the globe, and Commotion 1.0 will build on this progress.
 
In the city of Sayada, local media has hailed the deployment of a beta version of Commotion for powering the first free community WiFi network in Tunisia, and serving as a model for the rest of the country for its potential to strengthen democratic institutions and boost social and economic opportunities. In three days of deployment, local volunteers covered 70% of the city using Commotion, and the coalition of local technologists, builders and civic leaders is continuing to expand the network to reach all of the city's 16,000 residents. Tunisian regulations prohibit public Internet via Wi-Fi, so the network has a local server that provides offline versions of Wikipedia in French and Arabic, a collection of electronic books, maps of Tunisia, applications for chat, filesharing and collaborative document editing, and a mirror of the Sayada municipal website. Anyone on the network can choose to share their Internet connection with everyone else on the network.
 
In Somaliland, OTI assisted a computer science teacher at the Abaarso School of Science and Technology who worked with his students to build a network connecting the multiple buildings on the school campus. Students use the network to access educational applications and share files on a local server, so they do not have to rely on a tenuous, cross-desert connection to complete their homework assignments.
 
In Dahanu, India, community technologists are working with the Tamarind Tree School to build a network for the school campus to connect teachers and students to e-learning resources on a local server. They plan to expand the Commotion-powered network to the surrounding rural area so the students and their parents can access the local network services from their homes. The community technologists formulated the idea for the project after attending a workshop organized by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) and local partner Airjaldi in Dharamsala, India in June 2012.

In Brooklyn, New York, a Commotion beta network in the Red Hook neighborhood stayed operational through Superstorm Sandy in 2012, providing a critical communications hub in the period after the storm to residents who lost traditional infrastructure. The local partner organized a program for young people in the neighborhood to build out the network to serve local residents and businesses during the recovery and learn critical job skills in the process.

In Detroit, OTI worked with local partners to build a Commotion testbed network in one Detroit neighborhood. Community organizers have since started projects in three other neighborhoods and are organizing a training program to teach Commotion 1.0 and related mesh networking skills to other Detroit residents in 2014.
 
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