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The ISP made by the people, for the people: Filling in broadband notspots the DIY way

One Italian group is showing how a do-it-yourself ethos can bring internet connectivity to an area where ISPs fear to tread.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor

What can you do if there's no ISP willing to bring internet connectivity to where you live? Simple: get out and build your own ISP. That's just what the people of Verrua Savoia, a small Italian rural village not far from Turin, did.

In late November, they announced the birth of the Associazione Senza fili, Senza Confini (Association without wires, without borders), a group charged with the task of bringing internet access to the 1,400 residents of the hilly, 32-square-kilometer municipality.

'Senza fili, Senza Confini' is a not-for-profit citizens' ISP. Its founders claim it's the first of its kind in Italy, and a project that could pave the way for similar initiatives in other digital divide-affected zones of the country.

By paying a small fee, locals can sign up to become members of the Senza fili, Senza Confini association and become part owners of their own network. Most importantly, they get a 20Mbps wireless connection, while neighbours in nearby areas usually have to be content with a 640Kbps link.

The citizens' ISP is the final chapter of a long story. The fact Verrua Savoia's residents can take their connectivity into their own hands is largely thanks to a project led by the Polytechnic University of Turin, which in recent years built a novel low-cost wireless network. The network, which originally used recycled materials including old PC and router parts, consists of three high-capacity radio links that bring a signal from the closest internet exchange point located in Vercelli to five base stations, which provided coverage across the whole municipal area.

Thanks to TOP-IX, the TOrino Piemonte Internet eXchange, for the duration of the project the citizens could enjoy free internet through HiperLAN receivers placed on their roofs and balconies. In all, 260 people - 40 percent of local households - took part in the experiment.

However, the project is set to come to an end this month, leaving users at risk of losing access to the digital world. "We did not want to waste what we had built," Daniele Trinchero, founder of the Polytechnic University of Turin's iXem Labs, which built the network, told ZDNet. "We had to find a solution not to let down all the people who took part in it."

In the end Trinchero, who himself lives in Verrua Savoia, and others came up with the idea of a citizen-funded ISP. It would upgrade the network to make a commercial service legally viable and would buy the bandwidth to distribute to the users. "We set up the association and registered it as a not-for-profit ISP, then we substituted the experimental equipments with certified ones and started managing the network as any other ISP would do," he added.

Everything is financed by the members of the 'Senza fili, senza confini' association, which comes with fairly low fees compared to market standards: the first year's membership, which comes with a fully configured receiver, costs €135; in subsequent years, the price goes down to €80.

Verrua Savoia, like many other parts of Italy, is what ISPs call a 'market failure' area. Here, due to a relatively low population spread over a relatively large area, most large ISPs don't have the economic incentive to roll out new infrastructure. Even smaller players that specialize in wireless connectivity don't find it convenient to invest as the population is scattered in different clusters of houses over a bumpy landscape whose topography makes things even more complicated.

"A HiperLAN network, which is what typically smaller operators offer, is more expensive to build in an area such as this, where the hills are pretty steep, making the necessary [line of] sight contact between the base stations problematic," Trinchero said. That's why no ISP has ever succeeded in covering more than 40 percent of the land. It's also why local residents eventually decided to go it alone, and are now looked upon with hope by many other Italians in the same situation.

But can others replicate this example?

After all, having a local citizen who happens to be an expert on how to bring the internet to the most remote places isn't very common. But Trinchero, whose iXem Labs managed to set up networks in places like the Amazon or Africa's Comoro Islands in Africa, think the idea could nonetheless inspire others and be, at least partially, replicated in other Italian villages.

"Wherever a location does not offer traditional internet, the citizens can put into service their own network, using adequate sustainable materials," he said, adding that the benefits can be felt in many ways. "Everybody gains from the process: citizens get their own net, municipalities are satisfied, ISPs can sell bunches of bandwidth from convenient locations. That's a way to foster indirect business opportunity."

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