CUWiN -- the Champaign-Urbana community WIreless Network -- brings together a bunch of worldchanging ideas into one useful package: Free/Open Source software to create ad-hoc municipal wireless networks using recycled old PCs. The software -- which can be downloaded from cuwireless.net -- just needs to be burned onto a CD, which can then be used to boot a PC (even something as old as a 486) with a wireless card. Once the system boots, the software configures itself, looking for other nodes to connect to; the CUWiN system uses "ad hoc networking" principles to link machines together to reach the computer that's actually connected to the Internet.
CUWiN [...] exceeds the functionality of many proprietary systems. They want to bring ubiquitous, extremely high-speed, low-cost networking for every community and constituency. Following in the footsteps of Linux and Firefox, CUWiN has focused on creating a low-cost, non-proprietary, user-friendly system. CUWiN's software will share connectivity across the network, allowing users to buy bandwidth in bulk and benefit from the cost savings. CUWiN networks are self-configuring and self-healing -- so adding new wireless nodes is hassle-free, and the system automatically adapts to the loss of an existing node.
The CUWiN system is suitable for the developed and developing world alike; the only costs are the old PCs, the wireless cards, the single broadband connection at the root of the network, and electricity. What's particularly appealing is that this model gives new life to functional-but-obsolete pieces of computer hardware, keeping them (and the toxic metals they contain) out of the garbage dump.
(Via W. David Stephenson)
I love the idea of re-using old PCs. I see so many just popped into dumpsters. There is a recycling / reuse effort in Portland, but even they do not reuse older models. (They do accept old models for recycling, for the same fee.)
Oh . . . I should have mentioned that the Portland recycling group is called Free Geek:
SIGH! Apparently they had a Geek Fair today.
Does anyone have good numbers on recycling costs for old PCs? Given the low energy cost of running some of the new routers, some of which you can install your own firmware on, the environmental cost/benefit doesn't at all seem clear to me here.
Financially speaking, router prices have been falling dramatically too. My router cost me less than half the cost of my wifi card!
Routers and such ARE getting really cheap, and the power-consumption issue is a very interesting one: A cigarette-pack-sized modern router could concievably be powered by a battery charged with a solar panel. It would be far more difficult to do that with a PC.
Turning a computer into one of these routing stations probably doesn't cost much. Mostly a configuration issue (blanking hard drive, installing network card, installing new software).
The benefit is not having to pay to responsibly recycle the computer . . . or if it isn't recycled, dealing with its contribution to landfill contamination.
(Fixed bad link, thanks Stefan.)
It's true that routers are dropping in price and would use less power than a typical old PC, but the CUWiN software does a bit more than standard WiFi routing -- most cheap standalone WiFi routers don't do the autoconfigured ad hoc networking.
As Stefan says, the main value of this is in not having to dump old-but-usable PCs into the waste stream.
this is sort of like the debate about whether the total environmental impact of keeping an old clunker on the road, despite higher emissions and lower mileage is actually lower than manufacturing an all new one -- requires a comprehensive life-cycle analysis to really answer.
However, I think it's a little more clear-cut with PCs: I believe only a very small percentage are recycled. Increasingly, they are being disposed of in China with serious environmental impacts (remember the cadmium, other heavy metals, etc.): http://www.recycles.org/news/137105913.htm Major problemos.
Back in the mid 90s, I worked with IBM to publicize a really neat solution they had: the PS 2/E (e standing for both energy and environmental) -- it was way ahead of the curve in terms of energy savings, most parts literally snapped together (and snapped apart for recycling), the plastics were all labeled with the SPI codes to facilitate recycling, they could be easily updated with modular upgrades, etc. The only problem was that their marketing department believed the surveys that said people would pay up to 15% more for an environmentally-sound product, so they overpriced it. It won a ton of awards, including Comdex Best of Show, and sank into oblivion.
I really like the idea that you can take old machines, download this software, stick 'em in a closet, and create ad hoc freenets. I love every aspect of what these guys are doing (and I think this system could be the backbone of the "smart mobs for homeland security" for which I evangelize: http://stephensonstrategies.com/2005/03/07.html)