Friday, March 27, 2015

City broadband and grassroots wifi

Angela Siefer and I have a new guest post up at Cities Speak, the National League of Cities blog.

It's called "Municipal Fiber and the Digital Divide: A Modest Proposal".
The explosion of interest in community-owned fiber on the part of elected officials and technology leaders has created an opportunity that few have noticed: cities could leverage these investments to help lower the barriers to home Internet access that still keep low-income, less educated and older citizens out of the digital mainstream. This could be easily accomplished, and it would cost cities practically nothing. 

Here’s how: cities could allow neighboring households and community groups to share that terrific bandwidth – and its cost – by using community-owned fiber to power grassroots Wi-Fi networks. 

Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and community-owned fiber networks employ Terms of Service language that prohibits customers from extending their networks across property lines to share access with their neighbors. City-owned networks can expand the possibilities for affordable broadband access in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply by changing their Terms of Service to allow network sharing.
... Over the past eight years, cheap, modular “open mesh” Wi-Fi devices have transformed the possibilities for community networking at the very local level – the apartment building, housing estate or city block. Any building owner or group of neighbors can acquire a few of these devices for less than a hundred dollars each, distribute them at 100-200 foot intervals around a target area, connect at least one of them to the Internet, and start distributing robust, secure Wi-Fi Internet throughout the area.
Open mesh networks are providing public or “house” Internet access in thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, campuses and campgrounds. These networks are also found in some public housing estates and high-rises, installed by local housing authorities who understand the importance of affordable Internet for tenants’ income and education prospects.
There’s no technical reason why block clubs and community organizations in lower-income neighborhoods can’t use this same cheap, off-the-shelf technology to create truly affordable local broadband access, by sharing connections and costs among neighboring households. But unlike the people running apartment buildings, campgrounds and hotels, community residents will almost always find that Terms of Service restrict them from sharing bandwidth with their neighbors, at any price.
Municipal broadband providers can solve this problem with the stroke of a pen, simply by allowing neighborhood account sharing in their Terms of Service.
I've been operating an open mesh wifi network since 2009 on the block where I live in Cleveland. "Free Archwood" now consists of six $75 devices called "access point / routers"  -- two in my house, one in my garage, and three on neighbors' porches or in windows across the street. Free Archwood is regularly accessed by 50 to 60 unique users every week, many of whom are tenants in a low-income apartment building next door. 

This kind of account-sharing is an obvious way for neighbors who can't afford broadband on their own to benefit from the "arms race" in residential broadband speeds that started with  Google Fiber in Kansas City and is now spreading through other urban metros -- in part by means of city-sponsored fiber deployments like Chattanooga's EPB, which is now a pilgrimage destination for city officials and local broadband visionaries from around the country.

But guess what? Chattanooga doesn't allow account-sharing, any more than AT&T or Verizon or Comcast or Time Warner -- or Google Fiber. So EPB's groundbreaking, nationally admired service is unlikely to make much difference in the Internet access available to poor people in Chattanooga, where 29% of households had no home Internet of any kind in 2013 -- making it the 32nd worst-connected among the nation's 176 large cities.

Frustrating? Sure. But the truth is that cities like Chattanooga have no objective reason to prevent their citizens from taking full advantage of their public investments. So as municipal broadband grows, residential account-sharing is an idea whose time should be coming too.

Thanks to the League of Cities folks for letting us use their platform to share that idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment