The Tunisian city of Sayada now has an innovative new mesh network, thanks to a $2.3 million grant from the US State Department. Launched in December, the network uses a series of rooftop routers to offer a decentralized alternative to the larger internet, a way for computers to connect locally without reaching the wider web. In the case of severe web blocking, like Tunisians faced in 2011, mesh networks could be the citizens' only means of digital communications.
The networks offer little protection against surveillance — any would-be spies could simply reprogram a router to grab the network's traffic in transit — but the local nature of the network makes it less susceptible to the NSA's broader traffic-sniffing efforts. Anyone listening in would have to target the network specifically. Still, the promise of open communications has led the State Department to invest heavily in the networks, also funding pilot projects in Detroit and New York. The government has also funded a $4.7 million push for mesh networks in Cuba through its USAID program, the same organization that funded the controversial Cuban Twitter project made public earlier this year.