Clean technologies can help defend democracy and human rights, part 3

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This article is part two of a 4-part series on 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 favorite methods of controlling information to control people: telecom blackouts. It’s a problem that only gets worse in authoritarian countries and threatens even the most stable democracies. In this last part, I will talk about the solutions offered by clean technologies.

Independence from infrastructure opens up more options

All of these attacks on free information, whether it’s a complete Internet shutdown, censorship, throttling, or anything else, tend to hinge on one thing: controlling infrastructure. Authoritarian regimes and invading forces identify choke points in information pipelines and then apply control to those choke points. Cables, wires, and fiber optics are common places to intercept and manipulate communications or cut them off completely, but there is another important set of wires they can use against people: the power grid.

Previously, if you wanted to disconnect from the grid, you either had to run a noisy generator that depends on the fuel supply (something else they can control) or simply go without electricity once your batteries were depleted. If you wanted to be able to operate a satellite transceiver, ham radio, shortwave receiver, or anything else that could bypass a regime’s information control, they would just have to check places with electricity to see what they can find and confiscate.

Solar technology is now at the point where you can power electronics indefinitely without any power supply, and in something as small as a backpack. A small folding solar panel, a bank of rechargeable batteries and you could theoretically run anything for years without a wire that bad guys could trace or cut.

Get the message across in your country if it’s authoritarianism

Those facing communications repression already understand that the 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 extremely useful for short-range communications. The mesh network in particular has proven nigh impossible to control for the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, for example.

But, as we all know, Wifi and Bluetooth have limited range and eventually you will need to charge that phone or tablet. Clean technology and efficient communication equipment (efficiency means it’s also a kind of clean technology) can help bridge the gap here. Obviously, solar power, such as you’d get from one of the many solar generators we’ve reviewed here, can power this phone if short-range mesh networking meets your personal needs for freedom.

If you need to communicate more without infrastructure, you basically have two options: amateur radio and unlicensed radio services.

Amateur radio is a huge subject, in fact much larger than the average person knows. Inside, you’ll find everything from old “ship’s anchor” radio equipment to state-of-the-art digital communications. This would end up being a 10 part series if I tried to include everything ham radio related, but suffice to say it’s a good option for short range communications around the country. Message me on my dedicated amateur radio Twitter account if you’re interested, and I can point you to some great resources for getting licensed.

In reality, however, most people simply don’t have the time or energy to get into ham radio. A 35-question multiple-choice test, for which you can find all 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 network and infrastructure independent communications 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 are not large, and the equipment for them (especially CB) can be somewhat bulky and impractical. Also, if you attend noisy events like a protest, the AM or FM voice is hard to hear. Worse still, having a walkie-talkie can attract unwanted attention.

But radio technology has come a long way since the release of Convoy in 1978. Digital signal processing and software-defined radios let you do a lot more with less these days. You can send text messages and other data for miles with a cheap “T-Beam” radio running Meshtastic software (find one assembled with battery and case here), and do it with less than a watts of power. Additionally, these digital radios automatically form mesh networks and can relay messages from one radio to others if you are within range of at least one.

These are usually powered by 18650 lithium cells and can be charged with a small 5 volt solar panel. This not only allows for off-grid use, but also allows you to place one of these units somewhere high up to relay messages over a wide area. With a better antenna and a clear line of sight from a tower or mountaintop (no trees or mountains in the way), these mesh networks could have links over 100 miles.

Sending signals across borders is not so simple

Most radio signals can’t get past line of sight, so you can’t just transmit 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 or military regime couldn’t cut off. But this is not always a good alternative. On the one hand, authoritarian invaders are quite capable of cutting off satellites serving an area, temporarily or permanently. If your internet or satellite phone service is based on geosynchronous satellites or other services that only work on a handful of vehicles, they could cut that as much as the wires.

A decent alternative is something like the Starlink constellation. There are simply too many satellites in a complex constellation for the schemes to reasonably kill the entire network over an area. If the owner of the satellite system refuses to censor or shut down an area, there is little the regime can do but “raise its fist to the sky”.

But a complex system of swarm satellites must have an owner and someone operating downlink ground sites somewhere in the world. If that authoritarian regime holds ownership of your satellite company by the shorts, it might be able to convince it to stop providing internet connectivity to places it doesn’t want it served. Thus, constellations are also susceptible to being silenced or manipulated by government or economic pressure.

In Part 4, I’ll end with a few ways cleantech can help us get around these problems and preserve freedom of information.

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