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Activists Bring the Digital Frontier to New Communities
(Part 2 of 2)

by Michelle Chen
January 2, 2005
First Published in The NewStandard

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* Read Part One

A laptop and an antenna might not signify political activism to most, but in the Digital Age, they might soon become indispensable vehicles for social change.

With the rapid growth of wireless internet technology since the 1990s, the allure of using unlicensed airwaves to enable widespread high-speed internet access has created new alliances and new tensions among grassroots nonprofit organizations, government agencies and corporations, all of which have a stake in developing wireless technology, or "WiFi." Wireless networking -- which allows for decentralized, sharable internet connectivity at low or no cost to the user -- has the potential to connect millions to the internet -- even remote and poor populations. This is an empowering prospect for community organizations and corporations alike. And where there is power, a struggle is never far behind.

Resisting the tide of corporate consolidation in the communications industries, noncommercial, grassroots networking initiatives have managed to flourish in recent years. Networking activists take diverse approaches to connecting their communities. While some prefer to remain small and view citywide network grand plans with skepticism, others seek to forge a triumvirate of government, nonprofit and corporate resources. Some see great opportunity in partnering with behemoth telecommunication companies while others take a more anarchistic approach, building networks with second-hand machinery and homemade software.

The power of the broadband access movement, activists say, is in the fluidity and flexibility of their projects. Community networks run on volunteers and donations, and grow only as big as their constituencies demand.

In his analysis of the public interest in an open internet, Mark Cooper, director of research of the Consumer Federation of America, called this low-key approach a "robust network" model, which ensures "rapid and efficient technological innovation" through localized "open architecture." Simply put: leave it alone and it will take care of itself.

For the Portland-based nonprofit networking group Personal Telco, working digital democracy magic on local neighborhoods grows from a natural desire for "improving quality of life." The group's president, Darrin Edin, reflected, "We just assume that internet access is the baseline to be a productive member of society."

Personal Telco (PT) has set up over 100 wireless access points in small businesses and public spaces across Portland. Anyone within range of these "nodes" or "hotspots" who has a wireless card in their computer can connect to the internet. PT is now working to penetrate residential neighborhoods through grant-funded networking projects. The goal driving their work is to impart both the hardware infrastructure and the technological know-how to make networks self-sustaining, "so that each neighborhood [project] is driven by the people that actually live there," said Edin.

All of the computers, equipment and service plans PT has provided have been contributed by public and private entities, including the city government and corporations like computer processor giant Intel. "From end to end," said Edin, no consumer "spends a dime on this thing. It is all donation-driven."

Edin is confident that consumers and the technology itself are flexible enough to circumnavigate monopolies. "Smarter," more sophisticated access technology will allow for more efficient sharing of frequencies and decreased reliance on cable and telephone connections. "The grand vision … is to effectively connect all these wireless access points together," he said, "eventually forming a citywide network that never touches copper or cable."

Grassroots Networks Confront Big Brother and Big Business

Noting recent initiatives taken by some municipalities to establish public internet services, some grassroots networkers warn that just as big business should not meddle with the growth of community networks, neither should government.

Ben Serebin, director of the community internet project NYC Wireless, contends that since there is currently "no business model that's been successful with WiFi [for] commercial, citywide deployment," it is "highly unlikely" that a municipal government could devise a cost-effective plan. As long as hotspots in parks and cafés offer free services, the demand for fee-charging wireless internet access will wane, whether it is government-run or corporate. Moreover, Serebin questions whether WiFi is really the government's domain: "Why would we want our taxpayers' money just to replace an [internet service provider]?" he asked. "It's not like we get electricity for free."

Similarly, Matt Smith, founder of Atlanta FreeNet, a volunteer-run networking group, suspects that Atlanta's municipal network, launched earlier this month, will actually limit people's choice of service and may not even be financially sustainable. Known as FastPass, the Atlanta project is a joint venture between local government and Biltmore Communications, one of the area's major wireless broadband providers, and will provide low-cost service plans for public hotspots. Smith predicts that most fee-charging wireless services will find themselves unable to compete with the spread of free hotspots in cafés and outdoor recreational areas, and the government's scheme faces the same fate: "Nobody's going to turn down free access if it works."

Since their launch in 2001, Atlanta FreeNet has gradually cultivated an alternative network by helping businesses and groups set up public hotspots and educating local communities about the benefits of WiFi.

In Smith's view, without government help, the market can "fix itself, and not to the benefit of the companies trying to make a buck." His group offers a more flexible "amenity model," which starts with a baseline of free internet access, but individual access points within the network are free to offer fee-based premium features to users, like better connection quality or the option of making internet calls via mobile phone. In a café, for example, WiFi would be an extra perk that would simultaneously help sell coffee and promote a host of wireless services in the time it takes to down a latte.

In Texas, the nonprofit Austin Wireless City takes a more proactive approach to engaging both the commercial and political establishments. By setting up free hotspots around the city, the group acts as a facilitator, connecting local groups to government representatives and corporate service providers. "We kind of diffuse the natural suspicions that they have of each other," said the organization's president, Rich MacKinnon.

Both the Austin Wireless City and Atlanta FreeNet have created self-sustaining networks in which each hotspot proprietor pays for its own service, which is then offered free to individuals. The economy of scale ensures that "costs are divided a hundred different ways," said MacKinnon.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Still, while local hangouts and bookstores may benefit from the cost-sharing plans managed by non-profit ventures, much of the lower economic stratum of society remains literally out of WiFi's range. The proprietor-driven model promoted by groups like Austin Wireless City runs on market incentives, catering primarily to enterprises for which launching a public node, or wireless access point, is a financial investment.

So, although a local café can offer WiFi "on the house" to lure laptop-toters away from the rival franchise that charges customers to check their email, a community center in a low-income neighborhood will not have much demand for this kind of traffic. Consequently, commerce-oriented community wireless ventures have yet to make an impact in places where wireless access is not viewed as a trendy way to stimulate local business.

MacKinnon of Austin Wireless City said that although his group is working on expanding the scope of their network, poorer communities simply lack the resources to set up high-speed connections. While the costs of computer hardware are less of a problem because of the wide availability of hardware donation services, it is difficult to persuade struggling low-income housing residents to collectively "pledge to pay a 30- to 50-dollar broadband bill every month," MacKinnon said. "Those venues are in need of funds."

A few years into the wireless revolution, community groups have observed that the spectrum free-for-all has left the distribution of benefits in flux. Low-income communities still struggle with the Digital Divide between networked haves and technologically barren have-nots.

According to the household surveys of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about one in five adults with less than a high school education are connected to the internet, compared with more than eight in ten college-educated Americans. While 43 percent of people with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year use the internet, 84 percent of households making more than $75,000 are online. According to the latest Pew survey, a significantly higher percentage of whites reported going online compared to blacks and Hispanics.

But once underserved groups do gain internet access, the impact is noticeable. A 2003 analysis by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies revealed that internet access projects in low-income communities led to quantifiable improvements in local quality of life, education and employment.

Recognizing the potential of broadband and wireless to help shrink the Digital Divide, nonprofits are working to deploy comprehensive high-speed networks that penetrate into areas lacking even basic dial-up access.

A national nonprofit organization called One Economy is installing high-speed connections in affordable housing complexes in eight cities, from San Jose to Washington, DC, and aims to network 5,000 households by the end of 2005. The organization emerged from the public housing advocacy movement and founded its networking mission on the idea that low-income housing is a vital laboratory for exploring ways of integrating economically disenfranchised people into an increasingly technology-based society.

Vice President of Program Services Mark Levine said that One Economy's network infrastructure relies on a mix of fiber-optic connections within buildings and wireless connections between buildings, allowing "every household [to] share that access, which gets the price down for a family to a fraction of what it is on the market."

As a content provider, One Economy provides its clients with a multi-lingual web portal called The Beehive, a national networking service One Economy says is used by some 500,000 visitors each month, connecting to online resources ranging from personal finance advice to homework help. The residents have taken rapidly to the services, said Levine, which "points to the power of what low-income people do once they get online. They can do a lot more than just chat rooms and download music."

Most of One Economy's projects lack the bells and whistles of the coffee shop circuit. Vice President of Access Services Dave McConnell has observed that "most affordable housing organizations are looking for the simplest, the sturdiest, and the least expensive solution" -- and WiFi's limited indoor range of 100 to 300 feet per antenna makes it less viable for apartment complexes. Currently, about 10 percent of One Economy's projects utilize WiFi technology, mostly thanks to hardware donations from Cisco Systems, but this proportion is expected to grow over the next few years. McConnell added that as the technology becomes more widespread, "wireless applications will be touching a lot of affordable housing."

Unlike free-spectrum activists seeking to bust telecommunications monopolies, One Economy is not opposed to corporate partnerships if they facilitate important projects. The organization has attracted high-profile sponsors like Intel and Verizon by offering new marketing opportunities with a philanthropic sheen. But one limitation is that the feasibility of WiFi in affordable housing depends largely on corporate generosity. "We're involved in over 100 projects right now," said McConnell, "and I know I can't get a Cisco donation in every one."

Until nonprofits like One Economy have the financial backing to delve into WiFi independent of corporate benefactors, their efforts to plug the Digital Divide will assume priority over the broader policy debates that consumer advocates have taken on. "We're agnostic about what the ultimate internet provider is," said Levine. "We just want to get the buildings wired up."

But there are signs of convergence between the economic justice issues of internet access and the grassroots networking movement. SoCal FreeNet emerged last year in San Diego, California as one of the rare WiFi initiatives that focus on both low-income community broadband and grassroots, minimally-commercial networking.

Using recycled computers and sharing a few connections to an independent access provider, SoCal FreeNet volunteers have been scaling walls and running cable over rooftops to install low-cost networks in San Diego neighborhoods. Volunteers recently provided WiFi access to more than 140 apartments and surrounding areas in Barrio Logan, an impoverished, largely black and Hispanic enclave.

Vice President of Research and Project Management Michael Mee said that political clashes like the conflict between municipal authorities and Verizon in Philadelphia (see Part 1 of this series) would not hinder their ventures. "We're below the radar of most of that stuff at the moment," he explained, having cornered a market that for now seems unprofitable to corporations. Because SoCal FreeNet's target clientele lacks both money and infrastructure for premium broadband service, said Mee, "the telcos aren't interested in serving them, anyway."

The demand for wireless services generated by nonprofit groups representing local communities has been overwhelming. "We've got our finger in the dyke right now," said Mee. "If we wanted to, we could easily be completely overwhelmed with wireless work for nonprofits."

But Mee acknowledged a disconnect -- albeit a shrinking one -- between the explosion of wireless technology and efforts to narrow the Digital Divide. To build up credibility and skills as an organization, Mee said FreeNet volunteers must supplement their housing work by networking with local coffeeshops catering to gadget-laden hipsters. Advocates for low-income access argue that the group's energies would be better spent on communities that lack even basic internet connections. Mee recalled an email from a community group complaining that grassroots networkers like FreeNet's team are focusing too much on "running around providing wireless to yuppies with laptops" instead of communities totally devoid of any network infrastructure.

Mee is optimistic that as high-end public spaces become saturated with WiFi, the trend will be to move into "communities that will really benefit." These populations in turn are beginning to advocate for their technological needs. The community-based nonprofit sector, in his view, "is only discovering… this whole other world."

Community networks may have the greatest effect on rural areas, where internet usage is lower than in cities and suburbs. The La Cañada Wireless Association (LCWA), a WiFi cooperative serving 75 households in isolated New Mexico communities, has evolved in its two-year history into both a full-scale professional wireless service and an experiment in community empowerment. Starting up with a $5,000 capital investment, the cooperative has pooled funds to purchase high-speed T-1 lines that can connect up to 40 computers to the internet, and volunteers provide installation services.

Members are inspired to share both cost and revenue communally, said founder Bob Knight: "Rather than supporting a large corporate entity, they're basically supporting themselves." The local cable company's refusal to allow line-sharing on its high-speed connections -- whereby more than one household could use the same account -- also inadvertently magnifies the appeal of LCWA's no-frills service, which offers lower prices and better connections.

As a cooperative, LCWA generally avoids bureaucracies, corporate or political. The most interaction they have had with local authorities occurred when the state Attorney General's office investigated the group's nonprofit status -- right after a major cable company tried to break into the local market and failed. Happy with their modest but steady progress, the coop plans to expand into households that are not even connected to the region's electricity grid, bringing wireless internet to homes that have never known wire.

In Illinois, the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network's (CUWiN) strategy is to create a macro-network of access points and combine it with new software applications that not only bring the internet to residents, but create a kind of local intranet as well. When CUWiN's pilot projects are officially launched in early 2005, community members will be able to broadcast live streaming audio and video from local venues, instantly download news from the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, and log on to, a homegrown hosting service that will run over one hundred local websites and email lists.

Recognizing that mere connectivity is not enough, the grant-funded CUWiN project aims to close the technology gap through education, making community members stewards of their own communications infrastructure. "The best training models," noted Sascha Meinrath, CUWiN's president, "are really to just give the resources to people -- you know, let them figure out what best fits their personal needs."

Who Will Claim the Wireless Frontier?

The question of WiFi's manifest destiny centers on if and how wireless connectivity will wind up in the hands of the people who need it most. The coming months will bring pivotal political debates on how to regulate, or deregulate, the future of internet communications.

The longstanding framework for national spectrum policy has been based on the distribution of supposedly "scarce" bandwidth among public and private interests, like television networks, radio stations and the military. But according to Meinrath, more efficient wireless technologies have rendered this "incredibly wasteful," industry-backed paradigm obsolete. "Our policies are decades behind our technologies," he said, "and we're really suffering for it."

Yet recent actions on the federal and state levels show that policymakers are beginning to tune in to the potential of technological advances and listen to the demands of community wireless advocates. As a national organization, One Economy has helped pass legislation in 20 states and Washington, DC to pre-wire new affordable housing projects for high-speed access. This year, the Media Access Project and the New America Foundation have been successfully lobbying the FCC for the liberation of underused analog television spectrum for wireless services, which would greatly expand the range of wireless networks.

Experts also foresee WiFi technology growing increasingly sophisticated in coming years. A new technology called WiMax, promoted by Intel, could boost the range of a network to as far as 30 miles. Though the system has yet to be implemented on a large scale, tech industry watchers are hailing it as a potential watershed in extending wireless coverage across the globe.

But activists stress that industry heavyweights only welcome innovation that they can sell. Companies typically protect their products through intellectual property rules and software encoding that prevents tinkering, leaving grassroots developers "stymied in terms of creating new functions" for equipment, said Meinrath. CUWiN's tech team is currently working to "reverse engineer" commercial hardware, unraveling the protections built into products to tailor them for the local network.

Whether the next big thing in WiFi is the handiwork of hackers or corporate strategists, the general movement seems to be toward "ad hoc" or "mesh" networking, which minimizes or eliminates the role of hardwired phone and cable systems that currently serve as the "backbone" for most wireless networks. The components of a mesh network are mainly its interlinked users -- as signals ricochet through a "dynamic" web of mobile devices. An ad-hoc network is in its purest form totally amorphous, with essentially no stationary base at all, and grows organically, like a digital fungus.

Jonah Brucker-Cohen, a researcher with the Disruptive Design Team at Trinity College in Ireland, said this decentralized format is "something that the mobile phone companies and the big telecoms hate," since it "gets rid of all of their towers, because the people themselves become the nodes."

The new waves in technology and policy serve only to feed the primary current driving the growth of wireless networking: the momentum of people power. As Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy said, "you can't put the digital genie back in the bottle." Across cultural, economic and demographic spectrums, different groups are discovering a common wavelength, redefining community for the Information Age.

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer based in New York City who also works with the Free Expression Policy Project ( ) and She can be reached at This article first appeared in The NewStandard.

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