Throughout the U.S., a growing number of Americans are tired of the cable and telephone company bottlenecks to Internet access. What's at stake are people's ability to come together to offer alternative ways to connect themselves and their neighbors to the Internet. Policymakers, industry groups and community activists will continue to debate these network opportunities, and whether or not sufficient spectrum is available for them to expand.
What are Community Wireless Networks?
Community wireless networks are being built using WiFi, or "Wireless Fidelity", a standard technology that provides wireless Internet connection using unlicensed spectrum. WiFi uses the same unlicensed airwaves that cordless telephones, microwave ovens and lots of other devices use to transmit data or heat food.
These networks are being built by a variety of organizations including volunteer cooperatives, non-profit organizations, local governments, business development associations and educational institutions — many in partnership with each other. The networks are helping to deliver Internet access to residential neighborhoods, downtown business districts, low income and transitional housing projects, city parks and Native American Tribal reservations.
The Potential of Community Networks
Many national organizations have written and worked extensively on this issue. Free Press, has developed a comprehensive guide which provides information on community wireless networking, and the powerful social potential it offers to empower citizens, strengthen education, health services, government efficiency and local business.
On Native American reservations, community wireless is being used to provide communications services in areas that often lack basic telephone service. The Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association developed the Tribal Digital Village Project to extend wireless Internet access across eighteen tribal nations near San Diego County, CA. The project included training for tribal community members to design, build and maintain the network as well as developing applications and online information.
In August 2004, Free Press and the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWIN) hosted the first National Summit for Community Wireless Networks. The summit brought together community wireless networking developers, technologists, and policy experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing this technology and these groups.
The radio waves that wireless Internet devices use are getting crowded in many areas — and often are not suitable for every purpose. The Wireless Broadband page explains the problem and suggests solutions to keep wireless Internet access growing.
Models for Community Networks
There is no one model that community wireless networks follow. They take many different shapes to fulfill the vision of their founders. Some start with the vision of bringing WiFi to a neighborhood or community. Others have more modest goals like educating users, or ambitious ones like making WiFi available to entire cities.
Some are non-profits; governments or educational institutions also often take an active role, but most often, these are just groups of like-minded people coming together. These models are described below. The New America Foundation's "Unlicensed Wireless Broadband Profiles: Community, Municipal & Commercial Success Stories" (PDF) describes the successes many groups have had. See if your hometown is already on PersonalTelco's list of community wireless networks.
Most community wireless groups are informal in nature. User groups and volunteer cooperatives such as the Bay Area Wireless User Group in San Francisco share technology information through a Web site, email discussion group and often regular meetings. These groups tend to be very technical and local in nature. Certain groups seek to educate the general public about wireless and engage in public policy issues.
Some groups such as Bay Area Wireless Research Network in San Francisco and Personal Telco in Portland, Oregon deploy networks, often in partnership with non-profits and governmental organizations. Certain groups actually develop new wireless technology. The Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network is deploying a city-wide wireless network in Urbana, Illinois using their open source technology.
Want more information on this issue? "An Initial Assessment of Cooperative Action in Wi-Fi Networking" (PDF) by Christian Sandvig explains volunteer co-ops in more depth.
Certain wireless user groups have formalized into non-profit organizations, such as Personal Telco and NYCwireless in New York City.
Non-profit organizations with a social mission are adopting wireless technology to address the needs of the communities they serve, often in partnership with the wireless user groups. Community Access, a not-for-profit agency serving the mentally disabled and NYCwireless are deploying wireless Internet connectivity in Community Access' buildings. NYCwireless has also partnered with arts organizations such as the Brooklyn Museum.
The St. Louis WizKids, a project that seeks to improve student academic performance and reading levels, partnered with St. Louis Wireless to provide children access to educational tools through wireless broadband Internet. Other groups are using wireless technology to provide inexpensive home Internet access to low-income people.
The MIT Media Lab and the Center for Reflective Community Practice deployed a wireless network in Camfield Estates, a low-income housing development in Roxbury, Massachusetts as part of an ongoing research project on technology in underserved communities. They deployed the wireless network after the previous broadband provider pulled out of the project.
Other academic institutions such as Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio are extending their wireless campus networks to serve their students and faculty and residents of surrounding neighborhoods. Case Western is part of OneCleveland, a consortium of local governmental agencies and academic institutions that provide a high speed fiber network and wireless Internet access to government, educational, healthcare and non-profit organizations.
Government and Municipal Projects
The fastest growing segment of community wireless is government funded deployment. Cities, towns and rural municipalities are deploying wireless networks in their communities. So far, most of these networks are used for public safety services such as police and fire departments like Port Falls, Idaho. However, certain local governments such as Hermosa Beach, California and Spokane, Washington have wireless networks for public usage.
These cities regard free or low cost wireless Internet as a type of public utility such as water or roads and a way to further economic development. Many of these networks, such as OneCleveland, are building upon municipal fiber networks that have already been deployed. And now major cities like are considering their own plans. Free Press has an interactive map of community Internet projects near you. If you want more detail on how cities like Philadelphia and communities in Utah, Texas and Illinois have rolled out community Internet networks, visit HearUsNow.org’s Connected.
These municipal wireless networks are at risk. Communities in more than a dozen states are blocked or impeded from rolling out their own network for residents. Monopoly telephone companies are leading the charge, with cable companies shortly behind, to convince state legislatures to prevent government-sponsored networks.