This article is the second part of a 4-part series about how clean technology can help defend democracy and human rights. You can find Part 1 here.
I spent most of part 2 discussing the growing problem of authoritarianism in the world, and one of their preferred methods for controlling information to control people: telecommunications blackouts. It’s a problem that is only getting worse in authoritarian countries, and threatens people even in the most stable democracies. In this last part, I’m going to talk about solutions that clean technology gives us.
Independence From Infrastructure Opens Up More Options
All of these attacks on free information, whether it’s a complete internet cutoff, censorship, throttling, or anything else, tend to rely on one thing: control over infrastructure. Authoritarian regimes and invasion forces identify choke points in the pipelines of information and then apply control at those choke points. Cables, wires, and fiberoptics are common places to intercept and manipulate communications or cut them off entirely, but there’s another important set of wires they can use against people: the electric grid.
It used to be that if you wanted to go off-grid, you’d either have to run a noisy generator that depends on fuel supplies (another thing they can control), or just go without electricity after your batteries run out. If you wanted to be able to run a satellite transceiver, ham radio, shortwave receiver, or anything else that could bypass a regime’s control of information, they’d only need to check places with electricity to see what they can find and confiscate.
Solar technology is now to the point where you can power electronics indefinitely without any grid power, and in something as small as a backpack. A small folding solar panel, a bank of rechargeable batteries, and you could theoretically operate anything for years without a wire that bad people could trace down or cut off.
Getting The Message Out In Your Country If It Falls To Authoritarianism
People facing communications crackdowns are already figuring out that centralized communications infrastructure is a weakness, and solutions have already emerged in limited ways. Using existing mobile devices, with their built-in Bluetooth and Wifi radios, mesh networking apps like Bridgefy and Push To Talk (PTT) apps like Zello have proven immensely helpful for short-range communications. Mesh networking in particular has proven just about impossible for the Chinese Communist Party to control in Hong Kong, for example.
But, as we all know, Wifi and Bluetooth have limited range and eventually you’ll need to charge that phone or tablet up. Cleantech and efficient communications gear (efficiency means that’s a kind of cleantech, too) can help bridge the gap here. Obviously, solar power, like you’d get from any of the many solar generators we’ve reviewed here, can power that phone up if short-range mesh networking suits your personal freedom fighting needs.
If you need to communicate further without infrastructure, you’ve basically got two options: amateur radio and unlicensed radio services.
Amateur radio is a huge topic, in fact much larger than the average person knows. Within that, you’ll find everything from ancient “boat anchor” radio gear to cutting-edge digital communications. This would end up being a 10-part series if I tried to include everything about ham radio, but suffice it to say, it’s a good option for short-range in-country communications. Shoot me a message on my dedicated ham radio twitter account if you’re interested, and I can point you to some great resources to get licensed.
In reality, though, most people just don’t have the time or energy to get into amateur radio. A 35-question multiple choice test, for which you can find all of the questions and answers online, is apparently a bridge too far. Getting people to study for it is like pulling teeth. So, if you really want to get grid and infrastructure independent communications going for a large group of people, you’ll need to look into unlicensed radio services, like Citizens Band (CB), MURS, FRS, and ISM. The ranges for any of these services isn’t great, and the equipment for them (especially CB) can be somewhat bulky and inconvenient. Plus, if you’re attending noisy events like a protest, AM or FM voice is tough to hear. Worse, having a walkie-talkie can draw unwanted attention.
But radio technology has come a long way since Convoy came out in 1978. Digital signal processing and software-defined radios allow you to do a lot more with less these days. You can send text messages and other data several miles with a cheap “T-Beam” radio running Meshtastic software (find an assembled one with battery and case here), and do this with less than a watt of power. Plus, these digital radios automatically form mesh networks, and can relay messages from one radio to others if you’re in reach of at least one.
These are commonly powered by 18650 lithium cells, and can be charged with a small 5-volt solar panel. This allows not only off-grid use, but also allows you to place one of these units someplace high to relay messages over a wide area. With a better antenna and clear line of sight from a tower or mountaintop (no trees or mountains in the way), these mesh networks could have links of over 100 miles.
Sending Signals Over Borders Isn’t Nearly As Easy
Most radio signals can’t go past line-of-sight, so you can’t just transmit out to other countries without finding a way to get your signal over the horizon.
In theory, a satellite internet connection is a good off-grid option that people in an authoritarian regime or military couldn’t cut off. But that’s not always a good alternative. For one, authoritarian invaders are very much able to cut off satellites serving an area, either temporarily or permanently. If your satellite internet or phone service is based on geosynchronous satellites or other services that operate on only a handful of vehicles, they could cut that off just as much as wires.
A decent alternative is something like the Starlink constellation. There are just too many satellites in a complex constellation for regimes to reasonably kill the whole network over an area. If the owner of the satellite system refuses to censor or shut an area off, the regime can’t do much but “shake their fist at the sky.”
They can shake their fist at the sky
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 1, 2021
But a complex system of swarming satellites does have to have an owner and someone who operates downlink ground sites somewhere in the world. If that authoritarian regime has your satellite company’s ownership by the shorts, they might be able to convince them to stop serving internet connectivity to places they don’t want it served to. So, constellations are likewise vulnerable to being silenced or manipulated by government or economic pressure.
In Part 4, I’m going to finish up with some ways that clean technology can get us around these problems and keep freedom of information alive.
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