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LibreRouter: Why Buy a Router When You Can Build Your Own?

Altermundi community network collaborators work on a piece of hardware in Argentina. Photo via Altermundi blog.

AlterMundi community network collaborators work with partners from Mexico. Photo via Altermundi blog.

To connect to the Internet, most people around the world rely on private companies to provide us with Internet service — and the necessary hardware to get online — for a fee. We depend on companies like Asus, Cisco, Eriksson and Huawei, that build modems and routers, in order to connect to the Internet.

But this is not the only way to connect. LibreRouter, a new project developed by a group of hackers originating from different countries and backgrounds, will now make it easier to get online without relying on a corporate hardware manufacturer.

In August 2016, the IETF (the Internet Engineering Task Force, where Internet technical standards are developed) acknowledged in a document that “a set of alternative network deployments emerged in the last decade with the aim of bringing internet connectivity to people or providing a local communication infrastructure.” The document highlights that this classification involves “architectures and topologies different from those of mainstream networks and relies on alternative governance and business models.”

Inspired by the declarations of the IETF, and united by their shared idea of building hardware that allows community networks to grow and operate, this group has developed LibreRouter. Included within this group are community networks — i.e. local area networks developed by community coalitions — such as Argentina's AlterMundi, Guifi.net in Catalonia, Ninux in Italy and Village Telco in South Africa.

Community networks can play various roles. AlterMundi, for example, is an Argentinean civil association that promotes the creation of autonomous networks allowing the country's towns to have Internet access where commercial providers do not see a business opportunity to sell their services. The leaders of the Ninux community network say that one of the catalysts that sparked the project was a constant worry about the Internet's centralisation.

Meet the LibreRouter

Constructing networks requires physical equipment. Routers that play a pivotal role in the way that networks connect with each other.

The original idea of LibreRouter – which was to build a router for community networks – started in 2013, during a meeting in Berlin involving Steve Song, Elektra, Pau Escrich, Nico Echaniz, Jesica Giudice, and Gui Iribarren, all of whom worked on different community network projects.

They began working together in earnest when new regulations established by the US Federal Communications Commission forced manufacturers to restrict domestic routers, preventing the necessary modifications to create a community network.

That same year the project was awarded a grant from the Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean – a LACNIC initiative – and another grant from the Fund for Internet Research & Education to aid its development.

Gui Iribarren, vice president of the organisation AlterMundi – one of the organisations managing the project – discussed it in an interview with Global Voices:

GV: What differences are there between this router and others that you can buy in a computer shop? What makes it unique?

GI: La diferencia más fundamental radica en las libertades que ofrece. En primer lugar, evidentemente no implementamos ningún bloqueo sobre el software (como lo hacen el resto de los fabricantes, desde las nuevas regulaciones), de forma que cualquiera puede modificar el firmware de fábrica (LibreMesh, un Software Libre basado en OpenWrt/LEDE), o incluso reemplazarlo completamente por otro (“reflashearlo”) fácilmente.

Por otro lado, es un proyecto de Open-Source Hardware, es decir, publicaremos todos los documentos de diseño de la placa base para que cualquiera pueda entenderla, modificarla y producir su propia versión. No existen muchos routers en el mercado que ofrezcan esta posibilidad, y de hecho la empresa Dragino – que esta a cargo del desarrollo de la placa y tiene años de trayectoria en este rubro – ha liberado los diseños de productos anteriores.

Por último, hay diferencias enormes respecto a las prestaciones del hardware. Los routers que se comercializan (a precios accesibles) hoy en día para realizar enlaces en exterior normalmente incluyen una única radio WiFi. Existen en el mercado routers con 2 radios, pero son de uso hogareño, necesitan modificaciones de software (cada vez más difíciles) y adaptaciones físicas para que soporten la intemperie y tengan mayor alcance.

El LibreRouter está preparado de fábrica para ser instalado en exteriores y trae incluidas 3 radios que son utilizadas inteligentemente por el software LibreMesh para construir “nubes mesh” de alta performance, requieren solamente una correcta orientación de las antenas y pueden establecer dos enlaces simultáneos en la banda de 5ghz, en direcciones independientes.

De alguna manera, condensa en un único dispositivo las funciones que normalmente se obtienen combinando un router hogareño básico de 2.4ghz, y dos routers de exterior de 5ghz; pero a un costo total menor, con una instalación más sencilla, y ampliando posibilidades de desarrollo futuro.

GI: The most fundamental difference is in the freedom that it offers. First and foremost, we clearly do not put any form of block on the software (as do the other manufacturers, since the new regulations), in such a way that anyone can modify the default firmware (LibreMesh, a Free Software based on OpenWrt/LEDE), or even completely replace the firmware for another version (‘reflash it’) with ease.

On the other hand, it is an Open-Source Hardware project which means we will publish all of the design documents for the motherboard so that any user can understand, change and create their own version. There are not many routers on the market that offer this possibility, and actually the company Dragino – which is in charge of the motherboard's development and who has been working on this area for years – has released design documents of its former products.

Lastly, there are enormous differences in relation to the hardware's performance. Routers that are marketed (at accessible prices) today normally include only one WiFi radio. There are routers on the market that have two radios but for domestic use, software modifications are necessary (an increasingly difficult task) and also physical changes are required so that they can survive outdoors and have a better range.

LibreRouter is factory-ready to be installed outdoors and comes equipped with three radios that are used intelligently by the LibreMesh software to build high performance ‘Wireless mesh networks’, only requiring correct antenna orientation, and able to create two 5GHz band simultaneous links in independent directions.

In some ways, it packs into one device functions that are normally obtained through combining a basic 2.4GHz domestic router and two external 5GHz routers, but at a much lower cost, with easier installation and multiple possibilities for future development.

GV: Why does a community network such as AlterMundi need a LibreRouter?

GI: Las redes que fomentamos desde AlterMundi están construidas y mantenidas por gente relativamente no técnica. Con lo cual, desde el principio nos concentramos en que tanto la puesta en marcha como el mantenimiento de los nodos sean lo más simple posible. Sin embargo, con el escalamiento de las redes fuimos encontrando complejidades (como por ejemplo la necesidad de montar dos o más routers en ciertas ubicaciones) que complican el entendimiento por parte de la población en general, y por eso veníamos dándole vueltas a la idea desde 2013. El punto de inflexión ocurrió con las mencionadas restricciones de fábrica, que directamente hacen inviable la posibilidad de que gente no técnica transforme un router hogareño (económicamente accesible) en un nodo comunitario, poniendo en peligro la continuidad de las redes en todo el mundo.

[Nota de Gui Iribarren: AlterMundi no es en si misma una red comunitaria, sino una
asociación civil que fomenta la creación de redes autónomas, como QuintanaLibre, NonoLibre, etc]

GI: The networks that we promote with AlterMundi are built and maintained by people who have limited technological skills. Due to this, from the beginning we focused on ensuring that both setup as well as node maintenance would be as simple as possible. However, with the surge in networks, we encountered some complexities (such as needing to set up two or more routers in certain sites) that made running the network more difficult for the general public, thus the idea of LibreRouter had been going around since 2013. The turning point came with the previously mentioned manufacturing restrictions that directly made it impossible for people with limited technological skills to transform a domestic router (that is economically accessible) into a community node, thus putting in danger the continuity of networks all over the world.

[Note from Gui Iribarren: AlterMundi is not a community network in itself, but it is a civil association that promotes the creation of community networks such as QuitanaLibre, NonoLibre etc.]

On the other hand, Pau Escrich, from the Guifinet network wrote an article in Spanish entitled: “LibreRouter, a Project That Makes Us Dream” in which he concludes that while the project is ambitious, it responds to a real need. In his own words: “This is quite a challenge for hackers of free networks that, in my opinion, are close to making an important step towards freedom and autonomy relating to technology and communication.”

It is estimated that in early 2017, the first version of this router will be delivered to community networks promoted by AlterMundi in Argentina and by Village Telco in South Africa. Recipients will only pay for the price of manufacturing the hardware (around €90) which will be used to finance the second production phase, aiming to make it possible for everyone to acquire a LibreRouter.

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