Free Mesh Networks. Two Cases from Chile

Valparaiso Mesh 01
Valparaiso Mesh 01

This article starts with a short introduction to free networks, followed by a summary about free networks in Latin America. The article then tells in more detail the story of two attempts at making free networks in Chile, in both cases linking the idea of free networks with specific artistic and socially engaged goals, reports Ignacio Nieto, who has been involved in both projects.

Free networks have made possible new alternatives that allow it to think about autonomy from the commercial ISP system and be able to share information between peers and on an equal basis. Free servers have allowed creating services on the Net which aren’t determined by the commercial interest, and which are not governed by the desire to control information. However, they have also led to the overcrowding of the spectrum for IEEE 802.11 technology.

In 2001, “NYCwireless” has been created, as a nonprofit organization that promoted and enabled the growth of free, wireless, public access to the Internet in the city of New York and surroundings. Several free networks have emerged with similar objectives, both in Latin America and in the world. Standing out is, for its rapid growth, a project which began to take shape in 2004 near Barcelona. On November 17, 2006, the National Youth Council of Catalonia gave to the award for most innovative partnership project, as a pioneering project which enabled new forms of participation, beyond offering free Internet. provides resources to the community and interconnects the rural world, while bringing closer young people to new information and communication technologies. In the year 2008 was legally established a Private Foundation for Open Network Free and Neutral, as a platform for collaborative R & D, and as a forum for institutions, organizations and companies interested in participating in a global project for the development of infrastructure and network services.

The development and growth of these communities resulted in the development of free software, focused on replacing the factory firmware routers to allow greater control and the ability to incorporate new features. In early 2004, based on a Linux kernel, appears the first release of OpenWRT. Currently it has a repository system that installs around two thousand applications and there are versions for a lot of different architectures, compatible with various routers and inexpensive computers. This facilitated the emergence of several derivatives projects which have contributed to the development of the state of art.

One case was Netsukuku, a firmware developed by the Italian hacklab Freaknet, makers in 1998 of the first hackmeeting. Its proposal arises with the idea of creating a pure network that would use chaos theory in the sense that it is created and maintained autonomously, adapting to mutations in the Network Connections. Binding of management algorithms of a pure network with fractal algorithms and mathematical theories of chaos is one of the features that give Netsukuku the power to create a diffused and distributed, non-centralized, anonymous, anarchic, uncontrollable and finally, autonomous network. The goal is that anyone, anywhere, anytime can immediately connect to the network without having to go through bureaucratic controls or having to sign contracts. The IP address which identifies a computer will be chosen randomly and unambiguously (the eventual IP “collisions” will be resolved as a Hash Table), so the IP number will not be associable to a precise physical location (its server), and those routes, formed by a huge number of nodes tend to have a high complexity and density as they do not allow the "tracing" of a particular node, due to the complexity and randomness allocator IP. In December of 2011, Andrea Lo Pumo, part of the Netsukuku project, published “Scalable Mesh Networks and the Address Space Balancing problem”, available for free download.

There are several algorithms of Mesh routing, among others: OLSR, BATMAN, PA-SHWMP. Currently open source developers have a struggle to find the best routing protocol, that’s why they meet once a year in

In Latin America, the creation of collective oriented implementation of free networks began to settle early in far more precarious circumstances than in the so-called first world countries. One of the first cases of which it is known is Buenos Aires Libre, also known as "BAL", originally the group was called WirelessZonaSur and was then known as FreeBaires. Although there is little clarity about its foundation, it was apparently circa 2001 that it started developing as "Buenos Aires Libres" (BAL), with the objective of implementing a data network, free and community-based, for the City of Buenos Aires and its surroundings, connected with services like Wikipedia in Spanish, including community-based services. Jointly with the installation of nodes, BAL conducts outreach and training, where gets taught the building of antennas with household items. They have participated in events like "Wikimania" (2009) and Free Culture Festival "Fabrica de Fallas” (Failures Factory), organized by Radio La Tribu since 2008, and have contributed to the emergence of other free networks as: FerNet, Rosario, MontevideoLibre or LugroMes, who have excelled in the developing of firmware Nightwing , and have recently collaborated to develop a version that can meet the specific needs of BogotaMesh, a free network that have his reference before with Andres Burbano, the first free network project in Bogota in 2007.

In 2010, BAL organized the first Jornadas Regionales de Redes Libres (JRRL, Regional Conference of Free Networks) in which free networks from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Paraguay meet. During the II JRRL, made in Tacuarembo, Uruguay, it began work on the preparation of the manifesto of Latin American free networks, which was finished and presented publicly in the III JRRL, conducted within the framework of the 12th International Free Software Forum (FISL) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This event also included the participation of Elektra, B.A.T.M.A.N. (Better Approach To Mobile Ad-hoc Networking) developer, among with Rodrigo Troian from RedeMesh (Brasil) and Hollman Enciso from Bogotá-Mesh. Together, they traveled to Santiago, Chile, to deploy an open network using mesh routing protocol BATMAN-adv, in a community called La Victoria, “The Victory” the first occupied area in Latin America. We established our base station in Channel 3, a pirate television UHF frequency station that began their transmissions during the late nineties. The station`s editorial line is left-leaning, connecting with the 70`s in Latin America. This particularity mixed up with the idea of centralized signal transmission was why we choose it. We proposed a project for FONDART, the National Funds for the Arts of Chile, and we won it. We installed 5 nodes in different houses in La Victoria area.

The project, that was funded focused on the transmission on digital video within an Internet portal. Any person in reach of the radio signal of these free network nodes could access to the web portal and see and hear the videos transmitted from Channel 3. Elektra, from B.A.T.M.A.N. protocol funded by FONDART, was invited to work technically to install the network.

A mesh network was working in the winter of 2010 in La Victoria. We could “see” all nodes and also the web portal, but we couldn’t transmit video from Channel 3. Elektra left it in that state of the art, and afterwards the person in charge conducted bad management, taking the money of the project for his own purpose. So the group that was working on the mesh network broke up and the mesh network was abandoned.

A second free network project was run when the curator of Encuentro de Cultura Digital (digital culture gathering) met Elektra in Berlin. The curator spoke with me and we decided to invite Elektra again, funded by the Chilean government state department of New Media.

We established our base in Espacio G, an alternative gallery hacker space in the city of Valparaiso. One of the curatorial ideas was to work with the people who had lost everything with the fires during the summer of 2014 in Valparaiso. So a prototype was done and installed in two community centers and two houses in ButterFly Hill. Technically speaking, the network was based on an infrastructure which combines antennas, softwares, and a social network that can be freely used. In the sense of the context the installation of these network up on a hill broke typical communication flows. Topologically people, who live in the hills, usually have to go down to communicate in a verbal or non verbal way. All the services of the city (school, stores, baths, etc) are down the hill, far away from the places we installed the network. This produced a new form of communication that impacted directly oin the way how the city was organized, generating new forms of activity that having nothing to be with other urbanized public or private spaces.


Technically speaking, these technologies are difficult to install, manage, support and train. Chile isn't a rich country, and especially the community who works in these projects, have no free time to work in this network, in a contextual issue.

In the first case, technically speaking it was impossible to transmit digital video to the community, the mesh network was too weak, besides we got economic problems that broke the group and we never saw and prepared a final document to give back to the FONDART evaluators.

In the second case, Mariposa Hills are far away from Espacio G and we haven’t had any money support to go on with the project. Also, people at Valparaiso weren't motivated enough to go on with the project; the distance is too great and the community of hackers in Valparaiso is a very close-knit community. As for myself, I live in Santiago, so it was quite expensive for me go there and work for free.