The internet is great, but the internet is down. Disasters, government interference and simple technical difficulties were often the most powerful means of communication ever created. One man wants to change that and is building what he called the “prepper version from the Internet.” Called the Reticulum Network Stack, it is designed to coexist with or on top of the traditional Internet.
Reticulum is intended to be a streamlined communication tool that can be quickly deployed in the event of a systemic telecom failure, with minimal load and a strong focus on encryption and privacy. It’s all built on the back of an entirely new protocol that is supposed to be more resilient than IP, or Internet Protocol, a set of software rules that regulate the flow of information on the Internet.
“There are a lot of fragmented solutions and limited tools, but in reality it really lacked a complete communication stack designed for use by normal people without any sort of centralized coordination,” explains the designer of Reticulum, who goes by “unsignedmark”. in the Reddit thread announcement of the project. “A system that makes it easy for anyone to build secure and resilient long-haul networks with simple, available tools. Systems that would work and enable secure and private communication even when [shit hits the fan.]†
unsignedmark is Mark Qvist, a computer engineer who has spent his entire life building and managing computer networks. “At one point, I ran a small-scale nationwide ISP, providing high-speed Internet services to one of many areas that had been completely neglected by larger service providers,” he told Motherboard. “While it certainly wasn’t the most profitable thing in the world, and was pretty hard work, it was also very rewarding and an incredibly fun learning experience.”
Reticulum can run on just about anything, including the teen Raspberry Pi Zero† According to Qvist, people with minimal telecom and computer knowledge can build a long-distance messaging system for their community in about an hour using Reticulum, which communicates with network peers through any number of available channels.
“Would you like to extend it to the next town on the VHF?” said Qvist on Reddit. “If you already have a modem and a radio, that’s 5 minutes to set up. I’ve really tried to make this as flexible as possible, while still being very easy to use if you have a bit of computer and radio experience.”
Qvist isn’t the first person to build community-based internet replacement. In New York City, the NYC Mesh project is building a mesh network that will provide broadband to people across the city. But what Qvist is building is different. While many mesh projects exist to eventually connect users to the mainstream internet, Reticulum was designed to support an essentially post-apocalyptic scenario. Built with encryption and privacy in mind, it is open source and designed primarily to route digital information between peers without going through a server or service provider.
“Reticulum is an attempt to build an alternative base layer protocol for data networks,” Qvist told Motherboard in an email. “So it is not a single network, but a tool for building networks. It is comparable to IP, the Internet Protocol stack, which powers the Internet, and 99.99% of all other networks on Earth. Essentially it solves the same problems as the Internet Protocol stack, getting digital data from point A to point B, but it does it in a very different way and with very different assumptions.”
“The real strength of the protocol is that it can take all kinds of different communication media and connect them together into a coherent network,” he added. “It can use” [long-range] transceivers, modems, ham radio, ethernet, wifi or even a roll of old copper wire if you have one.”
For Qvist, bypassing central control and privacy are just as important as disaster resilience. “Without such an effort, our communications infrastructure (even if it runs entirely in private overlay networks) will always be at the mercy of various control complexes,” he said. “For example, the power to simply disconnect the entire civilian population of an area from the Internet is readily available and has been exercised many times†
His dream is for people to adopt and use Reticulum to build networks on top of existing structures.
“We don’t just need one big network, built as an overlay on the Internet, we need a multitude of networks and we need to connect them in countless ways. We need thousands of networks without kill switches and controls, and we need to tie them together, across the Internet, around it and beyond,” he said. “We need a hypernet that is constantly changing and evolving, reconnecting, healing and evolving. We need to give people the tools to build their own networks, anytime, anywhere, and connect them the way they want, without arbitrators, gatekeepers, or outside control. The internet is great, but we need a lot more than just one of them.”
Qvist said Reticulum is still very much in its infancy and that he needs help developing and improving it. Indeed, the project documentation states that it has not been externally checked for security guarantees and that “there could very well be privacy-breaking bugs.”
“There may be security vulnerabilities yet to be discovered, although great care has been taken to secure it from the ground up, which is something IP is not,” he said. “Because this is a completely different protocol stack than IP, which almost all other networking software in the world uses, you can’t run existing applications through Reticulum. New software needs to be written that uses Reticulum instead of IP, and at the moment the amount of such software is very low.”
Reticulum is available through Qvist’s github† There is a instructions that can help new people get started with the project. “While it’s still in its infancy, it’s showing great promise and I’m pretty confident now that it can grow into the powerful tool I envisioned,” he said. “It will take a lot more work and effort, but at least it’s moving steadily in the right direction.”