Future Fibre: Althea

A protocol for decentralized mesh network based ISPs

As we’ve been investigating the potential for community run Internet, we keep encountering compelling examples and initiatives that offer a wide range of solutions to address just about any situation. In today’s issue of Future Fibre, let’s explore an project with considerable potential, Althea, which is a project that seeks to provide faster, cheaper, and decentralized Internet, anywhere.

The last word is perhaps the most interesting, as most community based Internet initiatives are rooted in a particular community. Althea is different, as not only do they want to enable decentralized mesh networking, but they want to make it so accessible and transparent that anyone can do it anywhere without much guidance.

This is done via a combination of software and protocols that anticipate and encourage as many connections as possible, both on the upstream and on the downstream. “People paying people for Internet” is one of their organizing principles, and illustrates how their embrace of decentralization is quite literal and not just a symbolic gesture.

Part of our goal in pursuing our Future Fibre series was to gather sufficient knowledge to put together an open source business model for starting a community ISP. The VICE publication Motherboard had also started something similar, but never followed through.

What’s interesting about Althea, is that they may be the closest to achieve this, however rather than build an open source business model they’ve built an open source business!? From their About page:

Althea is a full service solution that enables anyone to easily build and manage a network. Focus on connecting your community, we'll take care of the technical details
  1. Plug-and-Play Routing requires less technical expertise. Just plug the antenna, aim, and you’re online!
  2. Agile Network Design allows you to build a dynamic network from hop-to-hop instead of large, expensive infrastructure.
  3. Automatic Billing. Built-in, flexible billing options and enforcement lets you focus on the things that matter, not bill collecting.
  4. Remote Management Tools and Expertise means a better running network. Our Network Operations Center is here to help you design, build, and maintain your network.
  5. Customer Management and Marketing. From demand aggregation, to a robust CRM, and tier 1 customer support, we have all the tools to promote and grow your network.

Althea combines open source software, accessible hardware, cryptocurrency, and blockchain technology towards achieving a community ISP that can be set up anywhere.

Althea is not a franchise, but reflects what happens when the franchise concept gets remixed by blockchain enthusiasts. Rather than the traditional ISP model which is highly centralized, Althea enables a decentralized model where users of the ISP can become part of the ISP and share their connection with neighbours and earn revenue in return.

Mesh networking has traditionally relied upon good will and true believers sharing their connection. However not only does Althea make this easier for people to do, but they incentivize it via their automated billing system.

This might make it easier for a rural area to develop high speed connectivity, as it provides a means by which an early adopter can recoup their initial investment by earning revenue from their neighbours.

Under Althea’s model, the economics of the last mile distribution are shifted by socializing internet access. Any router with a connection to the global internet can act as a gateway node, sharing that connection with other nodes in the network and being paid for data forwarding in return. This means that if users in a given area can arrange for one high-speed, high-bandwidth connection, the community can take charge of how to distribute it among themselves, developing the kind of local network infrastructure that a traditional ISP might be reluctant to install in an area deemed unprofitable.
At the same time, the owner of any router running Althea’s software can decide to operate as an “intermediary node,” defining a price in cents per gigabyte for providing the forwarding service to nodes that are further away in the network.
The system is set up to ensure that users receive the fastest and best possible price for broadband. Althea’s algorithm automatically looks for optimal paths data should take through the network. It’s in the interest of gateway and intermediary node owners to sign up more users to the network, since more through traffic brings more forwarding payments; and in turn, as the number of nodes in the network grows, competition for that traffic brings down the fees.

Although it is worth noting that Althea’s current network is built using Ethereum, and as a result Ether is the current cryptocurrency in use. Ether is currently rather volatile, as are many cryptocurrencies, and this may be an issue moving forward. Althea may instead choose to use (or create) a stable coin that is tied to a traditional currency so that there isn’t wild fluctuations in the price of bandwidth.

Update: Althea only uses Ether initially to onboard users from a debit card. They do indeed use a stable token, xDai.

It’s a side point, but one that is relevant when you choose to build a system using cryptocurrency. Especially when said cryptocurrency is integral to the larger project idea and incentives:

The result is a market for bandwidth which users participate in only on the basis of actual data consumption: No contract, no installation fees (besides buying an appropriate router), and no obligation to stick with the Althea network if a better option presents itself.
As Tremback and Deborah Simpier explain, besides the networking software itself, part of Althea’s innovation is in designing the right system of incentives for building and governing resilient networks. Before co-founding the company, both were involved in running mesh networks elsewhere, but saw problems with long-term sustainability in volunteer-driven projects.
“Mesh networks are often trying to be ‘free as in freedom’ as well as ‘free as in beer,’ so they don’t want to charge money,” Tremback says. “I was thinking about ways to keep the same decentralization but bring more money in to make it sustainable, and that’s how we came to [the idea for] this project, and to cryptocurrency.

On the one hand it is dangerous to use a range of emerging technology as part of your project, but on the other hand it does enable advanced and exciting projects like Althea.

The benefit of using open source technology is that it not only enables complicated and advanced technology, but the transparency also makes it possible for people to scrutinize and contribute to the project.

Here’s a quick overview of the technology that enables Althea:

Worth noting is the foundational tech part of the diagram, which includes custom firmware that Althea has developed for various routers widely available in the marketplace. This is partly what makes Althea possible, vis a vis paying people for various connections and traffic. It’s also what makes Althea more secure than traditional ISPs who do not have the resources or desire to protect their customer’s networks:

The diagram of the Althea full tech stack above also makes the initiative appear as a blockchain project rather than a community ISP project, given their reliance on blockchain to enable what they wish to achieve. In this context they are surfing the innovation happening in the blockchain world, and depending upon some of the concepts and inventions that emerge as a result.

For example, Althea depends rather heavily on DAOs or distributed autonomous organizations (or organizing) as part of their billing model. Here’s a presentation that gets into how this works:

While it certainly feels as if Althea is more aspirational than operational, they are in fact operating, which is partly a testament to the power of open source and the speed by which an initiative like this can be deployed successfully.

Althea largely depends upon Ubiquiti gear, but it doesn’t have to. While this is focused on mostly wireless connections, it can be achieved via fibre and wired based connections. The issue is not the hardware or form of connectivity, but rather the relationship between participants of the network, both technical and financial.

However the benefit of Ubiquiti gear is that it’s cheap, and accessible. This is partly why Althea networks are spreading around the world.

Similarly the organization itself tries to be as transparent as possible, and share their efforts and activities as they work with each new community.

Also as a set of software and tools, Althea can be used however a community desires. In Tacoma Washington this has come in the form of a co-operative.

As a blockchain based initiative, Althea depends upon and contributes to the larger ecosystem emerging. Ethereum is popular as it is a distributed computing environment that enables a wide range of applications and capabilities.

Cosmos is a project that seeks to foster an ecosystem of connected blockchains. This allows these distributed computational environments and platforms to communicate with each other easily. It makes sense that Althea would want to see this progress, as it would help them create and manage a sprawling network of decentralized networks.

In alignment with Althea's Cosmos based blockchain, this investment will support our work in deploying more decentralized internet networks and the work of interoperability with Ethereum and Cosmos by developing the Peggy bridge.
Cosmos's vision of interoperable blockchains resonates with our core vision of an open and interoperable bandwidth marketplace and we are proud to be a part of the Cosmos' ecosystem.
Althea makes it easy for anyone to add capacity or participate in the network. Althea’s router will always select the fastest and least expensive route on a second-by-second basis. These internet users and bandwidth providers bring a growing user base of everyday people to Cosmos, using crypto to pay for their internet.
Althea has established networks throughout the US and Africa and has seen accelerated growth since the post pandemic world has brought the need for high speed broadband into focus. We are excited to continue this growth trajectory along with Cosmos as we launch our Althea blockchain on Cosmos later this year.

If you’d like to learn more about how that works, check out this podcast:

Finally there’s the issue of who owns Althea?

Their website says they’re a product of Hawk Networks Inc. There is a website hawk.cool that looks like it might be similar, but it’s not clear. The SEC has some info on Hawk Networks Inc. raising money via a token offering for Althea, but that too is not clear. Consider this a significant blemish in how Althea is presented, but on that the group could easily address by providing greater clarity and transparency.

We’ll keep an eye (and ear) on Althea’s ongoing development and will provide an update via our Future Fibre series.

Finally here’s a presentation from one of the founders from their event Altheapalooza:

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh