Steffen Förster: The aforementioned interference liability is indeed a major problem for public WLANs. The fear of being held responsible for the actions of others on the Internet is great. Nevertheless, we have found a way to overcome this hurdle. The entire data traffic of the router is routed to our Freifunk servers via a VPN tunnel. This means that the individual node operator can no longer be determined.
VARIA: Do operators of public hotspots or Freifunk hotspots have to report to the Federal Network Agency?
Steffen Förster: The operation of a public WLAN infrastructure is always notifiable if the operator is commercially active. However, this also applies if he is working to break even. Freifunk Chemnitz eV is therefore registered as an ISP with the Federal Network Agency. This regulation does not apply to users who set up a router at home and thus join the free wireless network.
VARIA: What exactly is the responsibility of the operator of a Freifunk hotspot or are there risks that an operator should be aware of?
Steffen Förster: The operator is only responsible for the physical operation of the device – ie the installation site should be appropriately safe so that no router or antennae crashes. In addition, electricity and, if necessary, internet access must of course be provided.
VARIA: You mentioned routing via VPN earlier. How exactly can you imagine the implementation of the routing via the tunnel?
Steffen Förster: All traffic is transported through our VPN – this is a kind of invisible cable to our servers. There we take care of the further distribution of the data packages so that the users have access to the Internet. For this we have several DHCP and DNS servers in use, which are networked with each other with GRE and BGP. The routers themselves use the tunnel software fastd or l2tp to connect to our infrastructure.
VARIA: Away from the legal aspects, how big is your network? How many hotspots / supporters do you have?
Steffen Förster: There are currently 280 nodes in the entire city of Chemnitz and in some areas on the outskirts of the city. With around 150 supporters, we form a community that is impressive. This is also supported by our access numbers, which are currently up to 600 users at the same time.
VARIA: Which technology should be used for a Freifunk hotspot?
Steffen Förster: No fancy technology is required for use. All you need is an OpenWRT-capable router. This should have at least 4 MB Flash and 16 MB RAM. Our own firmware is flashed on this device. The software – GLUON – is developed in cooperation with many free radio operators from all over Germany.
VARIA: Who will install the software on the system? Does this mean that the device loses its warranty?
Steffen Förster: Many future users will receive a preconfigured device from us. The operator only needs to connect the router to his existing Internet connection or to an existing Freifunk router in his vicinity. Those with an affinity for technology can also flash the firmware on the router themselves. The original firmware of the device can be reinstalled at any time and the hardware guarantee does not expire.
VARIA: How fast are the connections? What bandwidth can the “guest” expect? Does this limit your connection?
Steffen Förster: The surfing speed is usually between 5 and 50 Mbit / s – depending on the existing Internet connection and router model. Our software only allows the operator to make a certain part of his bandwidth available. This means that there is always enough capacity left over for the home network.
VARIA: Can you monitor the use of the Freifunk hotspot, ie what exactly is being used? Do you advertise?
Steffen Förster: There is no interference with the existing data stream, just as there is no data retention. The user moves completely anonymously. There are only anonymous usage statistics per router. This is only used to evaluate the traffic.
VARIA: Who is liable if a user of their own hotspot is harmed by using it, e.g. by a virus or system crash or the like?
Steffen Förster: The free wireless routers already have a certain basic level of protection through our VPN. However, as with all other hotspots, the responsibility lies with the user. For example, we always recommend using SSL encryption for online banking or similar applications. Often, however, this is already the case by default. The traffic in the WLAN itself cannot be protected technically, since it is free and open access without a password.
VARIA: As a brief conclusion: Why should you provide a Freifunk hotspot?
Steffen Förster: Finally, let me answer this question with a small example. Everyone in a good restaurant is happy about the “greeting from the kitchen”. This service can also be transferred to digital offers. Regardless of whether it is a restaurant or a home at home – barrier-free access to the Internet is a fundamental right these days and ensures satisfied customers and friends alike.
Many thanks to the Freifunk team for answering our questions!
( Interview and photo: Michael Großfrei )