Atlantic Cities, September 24, 2012
More than 20 wireless routers sit on rooftops in Washington, D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. About a mile away in Mt. Pleasant, eight such routers have already been installed, with plans for an expansion into neighboring Columbia Heights. In each neighborhood, the routers form the basis of a community mesh network—wireless networks openly accessible to residents and supervised by the Broadband Bridge, a D.C.-based organization of which Rhea is a member.
Meanwhile, underground, the D.C. government is in the midst of installing its own high-speed fiber network. When completed in 2013, the $25 million DC Community Access Network (DC-CAN) is expected to provide internet access to 291 community anchor institutions [PDF]—health clinics, schools, and libraries—that offer services to low-income residents.
Both the Bridge and DC-CAN share a similar goal: extend broadband internet to neighborhoods with adoption rates under 40 percent. Oftentimes this means households with incomes under $30,000 a year, as the Pew Internet Project has shown. But where DC-CAN is an open-access, “middle mile” network—something which private providers like Comcast or Verizon could also use to sell internet services to businesses and residences—the Broadband Bridge does “last mile” work by directly connecting households to the internet via a small network of repeaters and additional routers.
What’s the point? City-built middle mile networks will always rely on private internet providers to actually get broadband to customers. Groups like the Bridge instead want to reframe broadband internet as a public good and convince cities to provide the service—which would mean asking government to make those last mile connections to homes and businesses.
“Local governments, they would like to live in a world where they did not have to be responsible for this,” says Chris Mitchell, the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Cities don’t want to get involved in offering services directly.”
In the middle of the last decade, community WiFi became a cause touted by cities as a means to extend high-speed internet to all, but by and large these projects were a bust. Once local governments realized constructing a complete, virtually free wireless network for everyone’s use required public money—with no chances of a return—they instead just gave private firms permission to set up wireless networks.
The result? WiFi that people either didn’t use (because they already had internet) or couldn’t afford.
Community wireless comes with its own problems. As D.C.’s Broadband Bridge team has learned the hard way, internet access can never be entirely free: in Mt. Pleasant, for instance, two of the eight routers serve as gateways from which residents make available their paid-for internet bandwidth to the other six routers. A splash page with a basic terms of service agreement, much like you’d see in your local Starbucks, is the only insurance against people doing anything illegal through the connection. And WiFi, while suited to distributing broadband internet across swaths of geography—think: college campuses—benefits from the presence of many routers in a limited area to ensure the signal isn’t absorbed or scattered by physical obstacles. Like, you know, houses.
Ensuring affordable, reliable access to the internet “typically means a network that’s owned by the local government or a co-op,” Mitchell says. That would mean approaching municipal networks as public works projects, with the city building out the full infrastructure and selling services directly. But doing so would put municipal government in competition with private broadband providers.
Big telecommunications firms, as you might imagine, don’t like this.