Detroit is the testing ground for a new open source wireless network technology

A section of Detroit will be the proving ground for a new open source wireless networking technology called Commotion. Commotion is a mesh networking technology that creates a wireless local area network for devices. The network can connect users to each other and with an Internet connection and can connect them to the greater web.

The network is being built by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), which has completed the first phase of construction of this network in the Cass Corridor section of Detroit. It plans to publicly release Commotion in early 2013 so other places can experiment with the technology. We’ve covered Commotion and the OIT’s efforts before in our story detailing the technology stack for an open wireless network. The stack contains technologies such as Serval, which would enable the handsets to recognize the Commotion network, Tor, a program that can hide where a user is coming from and OpenBTS, an open source base station that runs software that can interface between VoIP networks and GSM radios.

The idea of an open source wireless network, free from ISP and government meddling has been a dream of the Open Technology Institute for a while. In 2011 the nonprofit applied for a grant from the state department grant to make it happen using a cluster of technologies that have also been tested in unlikely places — such as this year’s Defcon security event. The State Department is keen to use such technology to ensure places like Egypt or Syria could still connect to each other and maybe the outside world, even if the government cuts off access to the web.

The upcoming public release of Commotion follows a funding round for a company called Open Garden, which is pursuing a similar mesh network creation software. Meanwhile Range Networks has formed to support the OpenBTS standard and deliver a “network in a box” that runs the OpenBTS software and allows users to make voice calls anywhere in the world.

These technologies are not going to eliminate your wireless phone bills or anything, but they can provide a testing ground for wireless engineering as well as a means by which communications can occur in areas where there is no Internet access. The OTI release on the news notes that more than half of Detroit residents do not have Internet service at home due to the cost of service and a lack of investment in infrastructure by Internet service corporations. With the Commotion network they can at least talk to each other — and the few who have Internet access might be able to offer that connection to the outside web via the software.