Off Grid Internet Use Cases
Expanding the uses of an autonomous network, and offering some ideas on the ways that autonomous and community controlled networking and power generation can lead to change.
This article is mainly taken from my main article “Recipes For An Off-Grid ‘Internet’”, from the very end. I realize that very few people are going to scroll through a super long tutorial article and I wanted to post my thoughts on other ways this could be used. Offer up some background thoughts that went into it, and maybe some ideas that will spur you to take on a project similar to this.
Datarunners, closing the gap & seeing it in action.
While imagining the uses for this network and thinking about connecting communities, this got me thinking about bridging longer distances. Not every community will have someone who knows how to use RF to send digital data, or it might not be working for whatever reason.
Let’s say there are two communities with their own autonomous networks, but for whatever reason, say for instance a mountain between them, it’s really hard to relay nodes to connect the two networks. I imagined data runners, people who travel between places with servers to share data. Basically a sneakernet. Nothing new. But it’s interesting to think about now. Datarunners can have these servers and routers strapped to an ebike, ride between communities and share information. In the communities there can be something like a torrent server that is seeking files. Once a data runner comes within range of the community network, the seeker starts to download the files and then that is shared with the larger network. One community might use it to share news or important information in an encrypted format, datarunners can move that information physically, either because there isn’t internet access, or to circumvent surveillance, whatever. I guess they would be like digital encrypted mailmen, only that they don’t have to deliver the data, it just connects and does it for them.
This also segways into creating mutual aid networks even in areas that have no communication methods. Communities sharing food with eachother, sharing information, datarunners aren’t just traveling to move data, but are working with mutual aid groups in areas to move supplies and information. That might be news, or updates to the regional database of supplies for the community confederation to see what each place has and to move resources efficiently.
This got me thinking about the ways that I can do this right now. I posted recently about an ebike that I charge on my offgrid solar system. I can put the router and server in the side bags, and use a solarpanel strapped to the back to charge battery banks. I could make my cargo trailer into a mobile solar power station, and charge my bike when it needs to recharge. All without the need for an outside resource. There could be a blackout and I could still move goods and information around at 25 miles per hour. Moving between areas that might be hard to bridge and syncing our files with their networks. Sounds pretty out there, and pretty futuristic in a way, but the future is here, a better future is possible, we just have to build it!
Towards a slow internet: a symbiosis of technology and nature
Directly powering a server, a router and a node with solar power means that when the sun isn’t around, neither is the network. It’s a reminder of nature, and the fact that everything we do relies on nature to work. We live in a truly unsustainable time where everything is available 24/7 because we extract fossil fuels and burn them to keep things running. The internet is infinite but the resources to run the internet is not. Running things on solar really points out how interdependent we are with the sun, with our methods of harnessing and dispersing energy.
https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/about.html is a great showcase of this. A website that runs entirely off solar power, it occasionally goes offline. When the energy required to run things runs out, it goes down. This is to say that sometimes we need to work with natural processes, learn that we come from the earth, we are part of the earth’s systems.
That is also to say that solar generation requires exploitation. The rare earth metals and materials needed are mined from the global south and used to make these panels to generate electricity. Degrowth means putting an end to extractive processes, and moving towards truly sustainable means. How do we make solar power without rare and finite materials? How do we move from supply chains based in capitalist exploitation and instead move to passive means of generation? Ways that we can reuse ewaste and other items thrown into scrapyards and forgotten instead of mining and manufacturing new things. How do we mine our waste to find the materials to make new things, instead of destroying the earth for the things we already have lying around in giant piles? These are things to think about. Solar power (PV solar power) is great, but we can’t ignore where it comes from, the people and countries their production impact, and the reality of our situation.
We know the issues, we know shits fucked. What are some of the solutions?
Moving into a place of symbiosis with nature, and learning from the natural environment. Mimicking what we see in this complex system. But wait, we need electricity for the important stuff. Medical equipment, mobility aids, safety systems. Yes, but let’s try to imagine other ways of generating electricity that don’t require extraction. What if we tool boilers from scrap yards and filled them with metal heat conductive piping with an inlet and an outlet and filled them with sand to make a sand battery. Passive solar uses no extractive minerals, just the power of the sun to boil collected rain water in a chamber. This steam drives a turbine to generate electricity, the steam is collected into sand batteries that radiate heat and capture heat naturally, another boiler is run from the excess heat left from the sand batteries. The remnant steam is then collected and then used as drinking water from going through the distillation process or recirculated through the system to cut down on water usage.
We can make passive generation systems out of scrap, we can cut e-waste streams with circular economies and economies of reuse, instead of destruction. There are other paths.
Expanding Horizons, Use cases, Ideas, Prefiguration, and Dual Power
So far this network has been about emergency situations, where we want to share information with each other without the hassle of having to develop things in the field, and without relying on the capitalist infrastructure that underpins our society today. But this really isn’t only about emergency times, because with these ingredients you can create so many different configurations and types of networks. We can move from different uses, imagine new ways that autonomous, off grid networks can bring to our communities and to our daily lives. There are ways to use this technology in highly beneficial ways. The goal in this section is to offer up ideas and ways of using this, along with other tech, in situations and areas that we normally don’t think about when it comes to autonomous networks. Parts of this will be speculative, a play on what if scenarios, but most of it will be for the real world.
The backbone of the community
You’ve been talking to your neighbors, maybe sharing food and supplies with each other. Other people in your apartment building are thinking about forming a tenant union. You and a group of friends want to turn the barren turf grass curbed areas and empty lots near you into a food forest by doing some guerilla gardening. Sure we can all share information on twitter, discord, facebook for the boomers. For more secure things we can use signal and protonmail. But what if there was a way to foster even more autonomy when it came to local organizing? So you decide to make a backbone network, one that will connect everyone in emergencies. But during normal times it becomes the community second, secure internet. Instead of getting together on discord to talk about what we are planting in the community garden, we use an Element server, with end-to-end encryption. We host videos on a media server that normally would get taken down if posted to social media. We switch people over to federated social media platforms and away from social media corporations that use surveillance capitalism to sell our personal data. We share books on the network, music, movies, help organize the tenant union on encrypted chats. We start pooling our money to source small solar power generation stations to put on our rooftop and around the block. We know things are changing, we are trying to make them good changes, but the world feels like it’s going to hell. Well. It kinda always had been.
It starts happening. You see more and more armed right wing groups in the streets and at protests. Your trans friends have to walk with someone home from fear of being attacked. Your state starts banning certain books in schools and eventually libraries. The election so many were hoping for goes the other way. The new government puts in draconian laws to monitor people for a list of crimes, sodomy, homosexuality, for reading banned books, for sharing the realities of the violence you see in the streets. The videos you upload of police beatings get taken down. The internet we thought was open, slowly becomes censored, keywords stopped. The new government uses the big data of tech corps to track people. Keyword warrants go out for anyone searching online for banned topics. “How to get an abortion”, “How do I know I’m trans”, “The history of slavery in the US”. Now all a crime to look into.
Your network becomes the only way to escape the grasp of the state. You airgap the network from the greater internet, keeping your communications safe between everyone. Everything is encrypted by default, and no intelligence agency can see what you are typing and sending. The videos that once were banned are played freely from projectors into the street. Showing people the reality of things. You spread your network more. Rolling blackouts happen from climate change ravaging the power grid. But your community has solar generator stations, now a lot after pooling your resources together. Your power stations help people power their medical devices, charge their wheelchairs, power the network, charge people’s devices to stay connected. You go from block to block talking to people, offering food, security and community. They ask if there is a way to help. There are a ton of ways, helping in the community gardens that have taken over every space of soil and rooftop. Helping with the community defense circle to keep the cops and right wing militias away from the community. They have computers, phones, routers that were sitting in the dark, now with power from a micro power station. Their routers aren’t special, but they don’t have to be. You connect them as nodes back to the network. More people add their own servers and information. Things spread, more blocks are taken back by the people. The chatrooms are full of people organizing supply runs, working with other communities, forming a federation of communities. Your book server gave people the info they need to make water filters, to make wind generators, to fix roads, whatever needs to be done gets done. People can talk freely, and live freely. You carve out the freedom you have been needing together. As a collective.
Spaces and Places
What if your local park had it’s own little server that had information about the plants you planted, the wildflower seeds you spread around a couple months back, and information on how others could help?
What if your local coffee shop looked like a normal one. But at any moment you had access to thousands of revolutionary texts. The once normal and quiet coffee shop becomes a hub of activists and revolutionaries.
A music venue has free music, when you come inside you are able to download albums for free. Musicians can release special tracks for the network, stuff you can’t get anywhere else. You are the first person to hear your favorite band’s new song after seeing them live.
It’s an interesting thing to think of sharing information in specific times and places. With the internet we are so used to the pervasive roar of data all around us all the time. Places are unique and some of the experiences you can have there are unique. It isn’t the same to look at pictures of a place, when you could go there and get a unique experience. A blend of the digital world and reality but also kept in check. This little digital world only exists in your local park, at the coffee shop, at this specific music venue. Picrust is an interesting example of this, websites in a point of space.
Protests and demonstrations
Most police departments have cell site simulators, AKA stingrays, that basically trick your phone into thinking there is a cell phone tower nearby with a strong signal. Once connected, the police harvest the data that any cell phone in the area is sending out. Unencrypted communications, text messages, phone calls, what websites your visiting or have open that are calling out to a server somewhere.
With autonomous and encrypted local servers protesters can create their own networks to stay connected while also not being connected to cellular service. With travel routers being powered by battery banks in backpacks. Multiple people in the crowd with a node, so if one person gets separated, the network stays connected. Encrypted messaging that never hits a cell phone tower, sharing pictures, data and map information.
Tiny Banned Book Library
As more states and school districts work to stifle access to information and censor what the youth can have access to, the more ways we have to find to circumvent these bans. Bring a router and a server to school, keep it in a bag. Plug them into a spot that’s hidden between a folding room divider. In the back of filing cabinets. Boot your chromebook into an OS off a USB and run Calibre. Broadcast all the books that they ban. Broadcast information about youth liberation, about the destructiveness of an educational system based in white supremacy. Give everyone access to books about deschooling, zines about where to get hormones, find healthcare, or get access to birth control. They won’t know how to stop it. They won’t know who is doing it. Never tell anyone where the servers are. Show up every day and broadcast the information they don’t want you to see. Make a walking tiny library of banned books and banned information.
Detention center drop boxes
Living in Texas, I have been aware of and have protested against the concentration camps, otherwise called “Detention Centers” where the US government locks people into cages for the crime of attempting to escape the poverty, violence, and ecological destruction mostly caused by US interventions in Central and South America, and the world at large. These camps are prisons, where migrants are locked, tortured, and die of preventable diseases and negligence. Another part of this is the lack of information from the outside world, and access to resources and information for people that could really help. The idea is to create drop pods with a small computer and a fileserver to drop into the gates of detention centers and include vital information, educational materials, and resources for people to access. Dropped in by a drone or by throwing the package, which can be a raspberry pi filled with information, and a touchscreen attachment to make a mobile tablet, encased in an impact-resistant case to be able to drop into the gates.
Prison Library & Information Network
The same idea can apply as the detention center drop boxes, but servers and networks set up on the outsides of prisons that broadcast books banned by prison officials and states that inmates might want to see. Including news, and general information that is normally kept from inmates. This would rely on the inside prison economy of contraband phones to be able to access resources. Even better would be a server that can also broadcast analog TV signals for inmates to be able to intercept information, or small radio stations to broadcast information to the inside of the walls.
Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution, but only a possible small solution to try and get more information to people normally cut off from it.
Community-controlled communication and power microgrids
With access to making autonomous communication networks and making autonomous power stations communities that normally would be ignored by states, governments and corporations can build their own infrastructures, and build the foundations for their own autonomy. We can imagine a rural community that internet service providers don’t want to provide services for, making their own community network instead. Maybe one that can relay and eventually reach someone who can give the network internet access. We can imagine an inner city neighborhood that doesn’t have access to high-speed internet, or really any basic services, making their own micro solar power generation stations, making free power stations for people to live and charge their devices. Cutting the profits of electrical companies who prey on low-income communities. No one’s power should be cut off because they can’t afford it, when we can generate power from the sun for almost zero marginal cost after supplies.
We can take these things and scale them up or down, change them to suit our various different circumstances and environments, and move closer to building the alternative in the now. To changing how we relate with each other, technology and the earth. We can start small, start big, actually have dreams of a better world in the face of global collapse. We can dare to have hope, to have the drive to change it all before it’s too late.
We have the tools, the knowledge, the drive. We already have everything we need.
Thanks for reading Anarcho Solarpunk! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.