Two days at the other side of Mount Olympos (day 1)with Achilleas Vaitsis, by Panayotis Antoniadis
On January 15-17th, members of the MAZI project will be among others at the Sarantaporo area for a 3-day symposium hosted by the team of Sarantaporo.gr. We will visit different villages in the area that are part of the network, including the "headquarters" at Sarantaporo, and will discuss with locals about the present and the future of this remarkable effort on network commoning.
To get a first impression of the network and better organize the symposium, I spent recently two days in the area with Achilleas Vaitsis, co-founder of Sarantaporo.gr, and I feel like documenting this experience hoping to generate some reflections that will help the discussions during the symposium.
I admit that even if I have read a lot about this project, I hadn't really placed it on the map1 before the recent successful crowd-funding campaign on the production of a related documentary by Personal Cinema. I was surprised to realize that the 14 villages offered Internet access today solely by the Sarantaporo.gr network are not in an especially remote area in Greece, but next to the Olympos mountain, half-way between Larissa and Thessaloniki (two of the biggest Greek cities).
How come in 2016 there is still no decent Internet access in such a central location in Greece, next to the home of its legendary 12 gods? Even if the villages lie on the "other" side of Olympos, the one less accessible and less visited by tourists it still sounds strange that Internet connectivity is so problematic2 in the area. A good example of the failure of the "free market" I would say, but at the same time a great opportunity for a commons-based approach in networking to flourish.
Indeed, the absence of decent Internet access has been a very powerful driver to engage the locals in building and maintaining their own network infrastructure (see a recent article at shareable about how everything started).
But would such infrastructure be still attractive if broadband Internet will be eventually provided by commercial ISPs at a low price? Can people perceive network infrastructure as a local resource for supporting local communications, outside the Internet, and would they invest effort and money for such a non-obvious goal?
These were my thoughts while waiting for Achilleas at the "River side" hotel in Elassona, the "capital" of the municipality, which since the 2011 local government reform includes all the villages of the area. The previous night at the local "men's cafe" (kafenio in Greek) of Elassona all the discussions were around the economic crisis and the new tax evasion measures of the government that strongly encourage the use of credit cards for all transactions.
When I mentioned to the owner of the kafenio that I come in the area to visit the "famous" Sarantaporo network everyone looked at me. Nobody knew about Sarantaporo.gr. Elassona has good access to the Internet since long time anyway ...
Achilleas arrived soon from Larissa where he works as a regional planner, together with his wife and children, and a trunk full of toys ... and cables :-) Our small guided tour would be an opportunity to visit the grandparents. So, our first stop was at the village Farmaki. While his mother in law was preparing our breakfast, and his son was helping his grandfather with the barbeque, Achilleas was repairing an openmesh router before hitting the road.
For the parents of Achilleas, the Sarantaporo.gr project was very important because it "brings more often their family together" :-) This was so for many other elderly inhabitants as well, even if their children are not part of the project, since they can now visit their parents and grandparents without being disconnected, and thus spend more time with them without complaining.
We were soon on our way. Achilleas brought me first to a nearby hill to overlook the area and give me some introductory information. The view was dominated by the mount Olympos which creates a common identity for all the villages spread in the valley. The fact that many villages face each other creates a strong feeling of community and affinity. At least this was my impression.
Achilleas explained how the Internet connectivity is provided by the University of Applied Sciences (TEI) of Thessaly in Larissa, which kindly offers a 1GBps link to be shared among all connected villages. The Internet gateway is reached through a two-hop long distance wireless link connecting the backbone network node in Sarantaporo (located at Achilleas' family house) with the TEI of Thessaly through an intermediate node at Melouna village, which offers a convenient hill with line of sight toward both end points whose overall distance is over 50km.
Additional long distance links connect the different villages between them, and eventually to the Internet gateway in Larissa. For establishing such "backbone" links one needs specialized antennas, which look like satellite dishes, and which can produce a very "thin" signal toward a specific direction allowing them to reach as far as the line of sight allows.
A long distance wireless link can be imagined as a very long cable connecting two remote locations, points A and B. For example, point A could be a roof close to the square of a village, without Internet connectivity, and point B, an Internet gateway. For people in the square (point A) to be able to connect with their own device to the Internet (point B) an additional antenna is required.
This needs to be an "omni-directional" antenna, the access point, which spreads numerous "cables" around it in order to make it easy for many devices to connect at the same time and independently from their specific location in relation to the antenna. As access points, Sarantaporo.gr uses the Open Mesh solution which was supported at the initial stages of the project by the OpenWifi project of the Greek Free/Open Source Software Society (GFOSS).
In the case of an access point, the distance between the small antennas inside our devices and the omni-directional antenna can be much smaller and the quality of the signal depends on many external factors: from the existence of obstacles (like walls or trees) to a switched-on microwave!
This means that a lot of "adjustments" are required in order to provide good access in the area and many omni-directional antennas, carefully placed, to cover all important spots. Unfortunately, in most cases it is difficult to offer the same quality of access to all the houses. At least, this means that there is a good reason to install an antenna on one's roof :-)
I think that it is important to clarify these two different modes3 of connectivity in order to understand how wireless community networks actually work and the effort required to install and maintain them.
Achilleas interrupted my thoughts to show me the trace on the road of the freshly installed optical cable by the incumbent telecommunications provider in Greece, as seen in the photo below. "They will not do anything with at least for three years" he quickly added before I ask the obvious question: "What will be then the role of Sarantaporo.gr?"
I wanted to argue that even if it will be in three years or more that the Internet will finally reach this not-so-remote-area, the shift in perceiving the Sarantaporo network commons from a local nonprofit Internet service provider to a local communications infrastructure will not be easy and needs to be prepared in advance. But we were already at Pithio and the taverna "Throne", a perfect name for the main meeting place of the village and the backbone node of the Sarantaporo network.
After the first introductions, the owner, Sakis, started talking with Achilleas about the performance of the network, the arrival of the new generation of the "open mesh" routers, and the right places to install them in order to increase the performance and coverage of the network.
Noone from the core team of Sarantaporo.gr lives permanently in the area and there are always many issues to resolve when they visit. And they make a big effort to motivate and support locals in maintaing the network by themselves. Sakis was one of the few who has managed to master the basics of networking required for such a task. I was observing how he could talk confidently about complex technical issues, searching online about solutions to various problems before asking for help, feeling responsible at the same time proud for this additional role that he had acquired and I felt a little emotional.
An old man joined the discussion when he realized that we talk about the network. He wanted to influence the decisions about the placements of the new routers pointing to people that do not contribute. Although the initial deployment was financed by the EU project CONFINE and GFLOSS, today every village has to cover the costs of the additional equipment installed through contributions by all residents. Of course, this leads sometimes to free riding issues, but fortunately not to the tragedy of the commons! On the positive side, the management of the network has become a hot topic at the kafenio, added to the traditional debates on politics and sports :-)
Note also that a few months ago, the Sarantaporo.gr team shutdown the Internet connection in Pithio because people wouldn't pay the monthly cost per village (which is only 50EUR). Very soon they changed their mind and became one of the most active and supportive village in the area. Elinor Ostrom has famously argued that to preserve the commons one needs to design graduated sanctions for rule violators. Sarantaporo is not an exception :-)
From Pithio, one of the first nodes in the network, we headed to the latest one, Kokkinopilos. A very small village at the foot of Mount Olympos, which used to host over 3000 inhabitants but today has less than 100, and sadly an abandoned school and an equally abandoned summer camp used only once per year during a mountain festival for hikers. Before entering in the village, we stopped to take a look at the summer camp, since we had already started brainstorming about bringing more and more people in the area for various events, residencies, and other activities around the Sarantaporo.gr network. This would be a great place to host one of the next wireless battlemesh tournament for example!
Next to the summer camp we met a young man who was the owner of the beautiful cows that we saw eating grass by the curly road. Achilleas introduced me, emphasizing that I come from Zurich to visit Sarantaporo. It is often that people in Greece (and elsewhere I guess) appreciate more the efforts of local people when they attract the interest of foreigners :-). While listening to the discussion of the two men, my smartphone vibrated. I had automatically connected to the Sarantaporo.gr network which has the same SSID in all the villages and it is completely free for all. Very impressive quality of experience! (I made a note though to ask Achilleas if it is a good idea to use the name Sarantaporo for the networks of other villages as well, since there are often strong feelings of identity between villages in rural Greece.)
The new backbone node in Kokkinopilos was also installed close to the only village's taverna, called "La Noi", run by a very nice couple, Thanasis and Antonia. When we entered in the taverna, Antonia was in front of her computer using the Internet "mostly for Facebook". Thanasis came a little later and started discussing with Achilleas about the performance of the recently deployed Sarantaporo.gr network. People were very happy with the new infrastructure and could now forget the old times of extremely low speeds for a lot of money offered by individuals that have tried to take advantage of the situation.
For Thanasis, the network is very important because it enables him to offer good Internet access in his taverna. Kokkinopilos, being very close to Olympos, is perhaps the most touristic village in the area. But recently the flow of visitors had significantly decreased and people are open to any idea that would revitalize their almost abandoned village.
With Achilleas, we suggested that Sarantaporo.gr will not help only through the availability of Internet access but also because it is one of the notable success stories in the creation of network commons worldwide. If appropriately communicated and organized the Sarantaporo area could become a gathering place of the rapidly increasing community of people that see such initiatives as the driver toward a new, more sustainable, way of living together in our hyper-connected world.
It could be branded as "the other side" of Mount Olympos. As a place of experimentation, not only in building networking infrastructures from the bottom-up, but also in other complementary areas of commoning. This would be the main topic of our discussion while driving to the headquarters of the network, the Sarantaporo village ...
(to be continued)
Notes1 Many greeks do know Sarantaporo from the battle of Sarantaporo, which led to the liberation of the town from the Ottoman Empire during the First Balkan war. Interestingly, Sarantaporo used to be the only passage between south and north Greece, and its name is due to the fourty crossings of the river, required to pass from the one to the other side.
2 When the Sarantaporo.gr project started in 2010, in the Sarantaporo area there was Internet connectivity only through standard 56K modems. Today, a few villages including Sarantaporo have ADSL connectivity but most with very low speeds due to the high distance from the DSLAM, and high price for the financial situation of most of the residents due to the economic crisis. Although there has been recently progress in terms of the scheduled investments by commercial ISPs through the national Rural Broadband programme, many of the villages are still outside the planning, and they are not expected to receive broadband soon. Moreover, 3G connectivity, if available, it is with very low speeds that render it practically unusable.
3 I will write a seperate blog to analyze the differences between backbone and access networks and the different types of people that get excited about them, when I will report on my experience becoming a member of the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network, which has played a key role in the deployment of the Sarantaporo.gr network.
4 All the photos that I took during this visit to Sarantaporo area are available here: http://nethood.org/sarantaporo/photos