I've now had my PirateBox up and running continuously for 17 months, so I think it's about time I wrote a review.
The PirateBox is billed as a "DIY anonymous offline file-sharing and communications system". The PirateBox project was originally begun by professor David Darts at New York University and is now run by Matthias Strubel. The PirateBox software runs on only a few devices, including some Raspberry Pi variants, some OpenWRT devices, and PC's. However, I've only tried it on a Raspberry Pi 3, so I can't say how well it runs on other devices. The software includes a wifi media server, chat box, and forum. In theory, users can upload and download any kind of file to and from the Piratebox, but I'll talk more about that later. The PirateBox works like an internet server that is not connected to the internet. You can access it with most internet browsers via wifi, as if you were on the internet. Without having to enter a password, random users can stream PirateBox movie and audio files to their browsers, chat on the chat box, post comments on the forum, and look at pictures. As a PirateBox owner, if you know HTML and are willing to spend some time learning the basics of the Lighttpd webserver, you can create your own static webpages, just as if you were running your own webserver on the internet. The PirateBox is a really neat idea. No wonder it has won multiple software innovation awards.
I began building my PirateBox about a year-and-a-half ago using a Raspberry Pi 3. The process definitely involved a learning curve, one that should probably not be attempted by someone unfamiliar with Linux. Although I upgraded to the newest version (1.1.4) several months ago, I began with version 1.1.3. My guess is that I spent 80 to 120 hours getting my PirateBox running to my satisfaction, given what it is capable of. I'll spare you the gory details of the process that I went though to get a working PirateBox--except to say, don't try to install Linux and then install the PirateBox software on top of it. Use the Piratebox image file that contains Arch Linux with the PirateBox software pre-installed and configured.
Although the PirateBox website has an active forum, the number of users appears to be ... middling. By that, I mean you can sometimes get help, but often there are just no known solutions for what you want to do. For example, I wanted to boost the wifi signal strength by adding an external wifi USB stick and a high-gain antenna. After many hours of struggling, I managed to do this, but I was mostly on my own, even though you would have thought that other people would have tried this before me. And, to be fair, there was some discussion about this on the forum, just not enough that a plug-in solution was available.
Despite the fact that I spent many hours reconfiguring the PirateBox for three different wifi USB sticks, one signal booster, and several antennas, none of this work to my satisfaction. I ended up learning that apparently no consumer grade wifi usb sticks or wifi signal boosters currently for sale in the United States output more than about 50 mW of power, regardless of what their advertisements say or imply. This is despite the fact that the legal limit in the US is 2 Watts with an omni-directional antenna--less for a directional antenna. This means that no matter what wifi USB stick/signal booster/antenna combination I tried, my PirateBox had a usable range through the closed glass window overlooking my apartment's courtyard of only about 300 feet, perhaps 400 feet with the window open. By the way, with the antenna built into the Raspberry Pi 3, the usable range is only about 30 or 40 feet. This 300 foot range limitation was a big disappointment to me, because I was hoping to extend the signal farther into my apartment complex. As it is, I think about 100 people are within usable range.
Here is what I've observed over the 17 months that I've been running my PirateBox. I've been slowly adding uncopyrighted documentaries, ebooks, podcasts, and audio books. In total, I now have about 23 GB of this stuff on a USB stick plugged into my PirateBox. So far, I've seen long periods of nearly complete inactivity from my neighbors on the PirateBox, interspersed with a few weeks at a time of nearly daily connections. Holidays are the busier periods. I wrote a simple script to log the MAC addresses of users, just so I could tell how many computers connect to the PirateBox. I know that a little over twenty unique computers have connected during the 17 months that my PriateBox has been running. I have no idea who owns them, and I don't care. The point is that several people have been using it.
I've had some disappointments with my neighbors' usage of the PirateBox, but nothing completely unexpected. First, aside from a handful of comments on the chatbox asking if anyone was out there, I've observed no activity on the chatbox. I expected this. Also, not a single person has posted anything on the forum. I didn't expect this. This disappointed me, because I had been hoping the forum would be useful to us for discussing some of the issues that we're facing in the apartment complex. I can't say what media files my neighbors have viewed or listened to on the PirateBox, because by design the PirateBox doesn't log that. By far, the biggest disappointment is that no one has uploaded a single file to the pirateBox. I can, however, explain this.
It's due to glacially slow file upload speeds to the Piratebox. At anything over 10 feet with files larger than 50 megabytes, the file upload speed to the PirateBox is 60 kilobytes per second or less. That's not a typo--60 KILOBYTES. I say, "or less", because, due to physics, the speed must decrease as the user gets farther from the PirateBox. This means that it would take a user more than 4.6 hours to upload a 1 GB movie file from more than 10 feet away. This is just unacceptable. And having checked with the PirateBox forum, I know that this is not due to something I'm doing wrong. This is a recognized phenomenon. Fortunately, I have viewed movies streamed to my phone from the PirateBox while standing about 300 feet from the PirateBox on the other side of the courtyard, so I can say that movies stream just fine at that distance (with my wifi USB stick and antenna setup). If it weren't for this, I'd have no use for a PirateBox.
One pleasant surprise is that once I got PirateBox version 1.1.4 running, it required very little maintenance (unlike version 1.1.3, which had severe stability problems). I'd say about every month or two the PirateBox running version 1.1.4 stopped being able to stream movies. I don't know why, but simply rebooting fixed this. Also, the Raspberry Pi doesn't keep track of time very well. I'm sure this is because it doesn't have a hardware clock. Consequently, it can drift a couple of minutes a month. Sometime a lot more. So, plan on resetting the time periodically.
The PirateBox doesn't work with zero knowledge on the part of the user with all webrowsers. With some browsers you have to type http://some_unknown_site into the browser's URL line to get the PirateBox page to come up. If the browser's home page is an https website, the PirateBox page will simply fail to load, and a random user won't know why. For example, if you type something like https://google.com, the browser will try to go to that website and simply fail to load anything. I can imagine that this has caused at least some of my neighbors to not know how to connect to my PirateBox.
I expect the micro flash card will eventually wear out. But so far, it seems fine. To reduce the wear, I set up the PirateBox to load most log files into RAM instead of onto the micro flash card. Maybe that's why it's been running fine on a 2.5GB partition of a 8GB microflash card for 17 months. This is with 1.6GB free on that partition, which should be really hard on the card as far as wear is concerned. You really want to partition the entire card, so that wear is spread out over the entire card to give it a longer life.
Here are some fixes that would really increase the usability of
To summarized my experience of operating my PirateBox for the last 17 months, I'd have to say that it has been interesting, but I'm not sure I would do it again. For another application with more users, it might be different. Perhaps there is some great use for a PirateBox--maybe as an advertising tool in a store, for file sharing in a library (the LibraryBox does exist), for posting announcements in a church, in a doctor's waiting room, or perhaps at a swap meet or flee market. But, as a tool for communicating with my neighbors, it has been disappointing. To be fair, I didn't advertise the existence of the PirateBox. I just turned it on, filled it with files, and let it run. But, I can't say it has improved the communication in our apartment complex, which is what I was really hoping for. The best thing that came out of this experience is that I learned more about HTML, the lighttpd webserver, and Linux. As a result, my PirateBox experience is part of what motivated me to start the cheapskatesguide.org website. So, I feel that creating the PirateBox has been worthwhile, but I'm not sure that I'll keep running it. Then again, the Raspberry Pi 3 only consumes $2 worth of electricity a year, so why not?
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