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Stephen Song, the founder of Village Telco, markets “mesh potatoes,” inexpensive wifi devices that automatically mesh with each other, allowing them to transmit data and make local calls.

In towns across Africa, where internet access is overpriced or nonexistent, mom-and-pop shops buy backbone access and then sell mesh potatoes to customers, offering them cheap monthly phone and internet rates.

Some contributed new backbone connections by shelling out, individually or in groups, for expensive DSL links, while others dipped into the network for free.

(Guifi is a complex stew of charity, free-riding, and cost-sharing.) To join the bucket brigade, all you had to do was add some hardware that allowed your computer’s wifi hub to pass along the signal to anyone in your vicinity.

Its backbone is a huge array of fiber-optic, telephone, and TV cables that carry data from country to country.

To gain access, you need someone to connect your house to that backbone.

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Bonicioli and the others can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet.

And it’s a pretty big group of people: Their Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network has more than 1,000 members, from Athens proper to nearby islands.

Anyone can join for free by installing some equipment.

In an era when governments and corporations are increasingly tracking our online movements, the user-controlled networks are emerging as an almost subversive concept.

“When you run your own network,” Bonicioli explains, “nobody can shut it down.” THE INTERNET may seem amorphous, but it’s at heart pretty physical.

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