Community Wireless: Your Next Hot Hookup?

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Municipal and community wireless gurus convened in Washington, D.C. this week — via old-fashioned chairs and, of course, Skype — to discuss the state of alternative Web networks. The events in Egypt, where citizens had their Internet snatched away in the wake of protests, gave them a good soapbox to stand on to suggest the embrace of new technology models for getting online (the kind that can’t be shut down with one man’s instruction to go ahead and flip that switch).

Community wireless is a by-the-people, for-the-people approach to making broadband accessible and affordable. And municipal wireless is a sort of cousin, managed by the local government for the people. In the U.S., such networks are often cast as a means of helping minority or low-income or rural populations get their hands on broadband. (Spreading Internet access is a pet cause of the Obama administration.) At other times community and municipal wireless are used to deck out public and private spaces — making Internet access available in a park, say — or to bypass the commercial service providers that have a pretty strong, expensive stranglehold on the Net.

All of the speakers at Tuesday’s hearing were advocates brought together by the New America Foundation, a think tank committed, amongst other things, to closing the digital divide. The truly idealistic, which many present were, see these networks as a means for increasing civic engagement among the technologically savvy, as well as those who would like to be so savvy. “It’s a way to sort of leverage the technology to build a stronger community,” says Ben Lennett, a policy analyst at New America. As people build their own local intranets, full of custom content and applications, or invest in the network’s hardware and become part-owners, a little broadband can become a very social thing, he says. (Gwen Shaffer, who presented European case studies, told the rather adorable story of one community-network clan who went abroad on missionary-style trips to set up mesh networks.)

It’s hard to do a rundown of pros and cons comparing these networks to traditional commercial Internet providers. Each is different and new models will continually change the game. Still, compared to higher-end packages you might get in the form of Verizon FiOS, say, community and municipal networks tend to be much cheaper but also more limited, in terms of speed and bandwidth. Reliability varies, depending on whether networks are run by a band of community volunteers or paid staffers. And, for the time being at least, most municipal and community wireless providers are in beta-stages that leave them more suitable to be supplements rather than replacements, one of the panelists conceded.

That said, here are a few interesting alternative models used for obtaining community or municipal wireless in the U.S., as described at the meeting and in a New America report that debuted there:

– In Lompoc, Calif., residents use a municipal wireless model that functions like a public utility, and residents get their broadband hookup like they get their water and electricity. The service costs $15.99 per month, which is just tacked on to the bills of the 10% or so of residents who use the service.

– In Minneapolis, the city has a public-private partnership. The city is an “anchor tenant” on the network, meaning they pay for the service city-wide, and in return the private company funds, builds and operates the network while getting exclusive rights to the city’s business. Residents can get hooked in to the service for about $15 per month, in addition to using more than 100 free hot spots around the city.

–Less Networks, a “private company with a social mission” in Austin, Texas, partnered with various shops and eateries to pop up Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the town. The businesses chipped in to pay for the connection and a cheap access point, and their patrons got the reward. More businesses and providers have since been brought in, creating a “fabric of connectivity” that covers all the libraries, downtown squares, and so on.

–Lawrence, Kansas, the hip Midwestern home to KU, has a non-profit community network called Freenet, one of those dreams that started in someone’s garage and now services most of the town. (After funding troubles, they created a sister private-business that owns their infrastructure, but the non-profit side still provides the service and interacts with the community.) Network access costs $23.98 per month but comes without a contract, which is popular with the transient campus crowd.

One of the first major efforts at using an alternative models happened in Philadelphia in 2004 but went ker-flop, and that experiment has since been a beacon for the hesitancy with which cities have approached wireless reform (even though Philly’s failure may have been mainly due to flaws in the corporate-franchise model they used). And many states have laws that are unfriendly to anything except the traditional ISPs. But despite the country’s slow, wary adoption, hope remains. “Municipal wireless in the U.S. is not dead,” Lennett said at the meeting. Add in a mention for community wireless, and that may be a slogan in the making.

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