The internet is great, but the internet goes down. Disasters, government interference, and simple technical difficulties often fell the most powerful communication tool ever made. One man wants to change that and is building what he calls the “prepper version of the internet.” It’s called the Reticulum Network Stack and it’s designed to exist alongside or on top of the traditional internet.
Reticulum is to be a streamlined communications tool that can be quickly meant in the case of systemic telecom failure, with minimal lift and a heavy focus on encryption and privacy. All of it is built on the back of an entirely new protocol that aims to be more resilient than IP, or Internet Protocol, which is a set of software rules that govern the flow of information on the internet.
“A lot of fragmented solutions and limited tools exist, but in reality, what was really missing was a complete communications stack designed for use by normal people without centralized coordination of any kind,” Reticulum’s designer, who goes by “unsignedmark” explained in the Reddit thread announcing the project. “A system that would allow anyone to easily build secure and resilient long-range networks with simple, available tools. Systems that would work and allow secure and private comms even when [shit hits the fan.]”
unsignedmark is Mark Qvist, a computer engineer who has spent his life building and managing computer networks. “I ran a small-scale rural ISP at one point, providing high-speed Internet service to one of the many areas that had been completely neglected by larger service providers,” he told Motherboard. “While it was definitely not 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 teensy Raspberry Pi Zero. According to Qvist, people with minimal telecom and computer knowledge could put together a long-range messaging system for their community in about an hour using Reticulum, communicating over any number of available channels to network peers.
“Want to extend it to the next town over VHF radio?” Qvist said on Reddit. “If you already have a modem and a radio, that’s 5 minutes to set up. I 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 a community oriented internet replacement. In New York City, the NYC Mesh project is building a mesh network that delivers broadband to people across the city. But what Qvist is building is different. While many mesh projects exist to ultimately connect users to the regular internet, Reticulum is designed to be a support in essentially a post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s built with encryption and privacy in mind, is open source, and is primarily designed to route digital information between peers without going through a server or service provider.
“Reticulum is an effort to build an alternative base-layer protocol for data networks,” Qvist told Motherboard in an email. “As such it is not one single network, but a tool to build networks. It is comparable to IP, the Internet Protocol stack, that powers the Internet, and 99.99% of all other networks on earth. In essence, it solves the same problems that the Internet Protocol stack does, getting digital data from point A to point B, but it does so in a very different way, and with very different assumptions.”
“The real strength of the protocol is that it can use all kinds of different communications mediums, and connect them together into a coherent mesh,” he added. “It can use [long-range] transceivers, modems, ham radio, ethernet, WiFi, or even a roll of old copper wire if that is what you have.”
For Qvist, the circumvention of central control and privacy are just as important as resilience to disaster. “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. “The power to simply disconnect the entire civilian population of an area from the Internet, for example, is readily available, and has been exercised many times.”
It’s his dream that people adopt Reticulum and use it 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 a myriad of ways. We need thousands of networks without kill-switches and control mechanisms, and we need to bind them together, both over the Internet, around it and outside of it,” he said. “We need a Hypernet that is constantly morphing and evolving, reconnecting, healing and developing itself. We need to give people the tools to build their own networks, anytime and anywhere, and to connect them together as they see fit, without arbiters, gatekeepers or external control. The Internet is great, but we need a lot more than just one of them.”
Qvist said that Reticulum is very much in the early days and that he needs help to develop and improve it. Indeed, the project documentation states that it hasn’t been externally audited for security guarantees, and “there could very well be privacy-breaking bugs.”
“There may be security issues that have yet to be discovered, even though great care has been to make it secure from the ground up, something that IP is not,” he said. “Since this is a completely different protocol stack than IP, which almost all other networked software in the world uses, you cannot run existing applications over Reticulum. New software must be written that uses Reticulum instead of IP, and at this point, the amount of such software is very low.”
Reticulum is available through Qvist’s Github. There’s a manual that can help new people get started working with the project. “While it is still in its infancy, it is showing promise, and I am now quite certain that it can mature into the powerful tool that I envisioned it to be,” he said. “It’s gonna take a lot more work and effort, but it is at least moving steadily in the right direction.”