This story was submitted by G.B., a regular reader and article contributor here. It concerns something we've talked about before, not only on this website but also in our vidchats, and that is the need for redundancy in communications systems, and particularly the internet. Yesterday, for example, I blogged about the strange case of Evergrande's "quantum economic superposition," did it default, or not? Along the way, I pointed out the inherent problems with completely digital systems (especially in finance) and the lack of transparency they inevitably engender. The other problem is what happens when those systems for whatever reason break down. Say you hold a corporate bond and an interest payment of $10,000 is coming due. But on the due date, your region experiences internet downtime, a convenient "denial of service" attack. Neither can you redeem your bond coupon from your local bank, nor can the bank access any information on the bond on its computer, nor pay you your computer blips. On the other hand, if you had physical possession of the bond and its coupon, you could still enter your candle-lit bank, present the coupon, your identification, and receive your money.
In other words, analogue helps, not hinders, redundancy.
So with that in mind, contemplate the following story about linking the internet and ham radio together:
Note that the redundancy problem is at the heart of this experiment:
San Francisco hackerspace, Noisebridge, is making an alternative network modeled after the Internet that would provide high-speed connectivity for a fraction of the cost of traditional internet service.
Noisebridge is working on this project using commodity Wi-Fi equipment that’s been modified to work under amateur radio frequencies. The FCC grants experimenters spectrum space to build high power, long range radio systems. Through this provision, Noisebridge has begun building the HInternet (a combination of “Ham Radio" and “Internet”).
As one enthusiast explains, “You can run any application you could run over the Internet, the difference is you don’t need any wires. Everything is done through radio links. In the event of a major disaster, you wouldn’t have to worry about downed lines or earthquake damage to underground equipment -- the network would naturally reform itself, routing around failures.”
The idea to create the HInternet was triggered by the realization that there was a lot open IP space allocated to amateur radio that was not in use. Aside from the benefits this system could provide in natural disaster, the HInternet is driven by the belief in freedom and open access to the Internet. The United States is debating a bill to create an Internet kill switch, also known as the PCNAA bill. For true redundancy, a non-critical network such as the HInternet is being built to avoid this single point of failure.
So far so good. But now let's take a further step into the redundancy problem. Clearly, this experiment is being driven - if one takes the article at face value - because of the looming problem of internet censorship either via government or corporate action. And in a certain sense, the worldwide network of ham radio operators did function for decades as a kind of internet, an alternative source of news and verification of news. But what happens in the case of an electromagnetic pulse scenario? All electronics in a region are fried...
Radios that function on good old fashioned vacuum tubes (if you can find one, or simply, make one) are much less susceptible to pulses than are digital computer chips and integrated circuits... Not for nothing do so many dedicated ham operators buy and maintain such radios. Of course, an emp might take out your local power station, and your computer... but it might leave some home generators and batteries, and radios, operable...but only those disconnected from long wires.
All of which brings me to my high octane speculation of the day, and again, G.B. hinted at this: we're looking at a public project here, but I suspect one based on something that various governments have already implemented: analogue (in this case, radio) redundant communications systems integrated into the internet, just like navies are reportedly training their ships' crews in the all-but-forgotten art of celestial navigation once again. (Just wait, eventually navies [just like railroads doing all those steam locomotive restorations] are going to realize that semaphors and signal flags might not be such a bad back up either.) After all, Admiral Nelson didn't chase Admiral Villeneuve all over the Atlantic relying on GPS satellites, and in the early days, railroads did not have automatically and remotely operating turnouts either. Someone had to be there to push or pull a very analogue lever according to certain pre-established schedules, and raise and lower little flags or balloons for engineers in the locomotive cabs to know track conditions ahead... After all, robots won't work in an emp either (unless they're running on vacuum tubes, and I haven't seen any designs for those lately).
Notably, this story is coming from San Franfreakshow, Nuttyfornia, which makes me think it might also be related to that internet cable attack in that city a few years ago... you know, the one where internet cables were literally sawed apart by someone with precise knowledge of where to do so...
See you on the flip side...