Notes from Broadband Bridge Community Wireless Meeting, Sept. 25 2012

There were twelve people at a Broadband Bridge meeting in Mount Pleasant to discuss the importance of community-controlled infrastructure for internet access.

First we read this news piece, “More sad news on why Americans pay so much for crappy Internet and phone service.”

People gave their reactions:

  • We should nationalize our telecommunications infrastructure
  • Other countries have free WiFi, why not us?
  • America has fallen behind over the last decade
  • We need uniform access, not just “available access”
  • It’s not an issue of cost – companies make record profits

Taking the notion of uniform access and nationalization, we shaped this into the idea of the internet as a commons. Points from this conversation:

  • Community access: concern for security
  • If I share, what if someone else uses it in a way I don’t like?
  • Liability is a tool that the ISPs use to force people to buy their own connection
  • Fear of liability comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding
  • How is that different? People don’t know the difference
  • Within the industry, the term “cloud” came from “not my problem”
  • Few people know that the cloud is all made of specific and fallible hardware
  • We could use the metric of “the weight of the internet” in electrons to ask, “how much does my part weigh?”

What are the problems with the internet and access in DC?

  • HacDC can’t get sufficient broadband for its projects, nor can other nonprofits in the St. Stephens space – this holds back the potential of the nonprofits
  • There is a chilling effect from the lack of trust of operators
  • A lack of alternative options prevents meaningful participation
  • With community wireless, you will likely be in contact with people who share their broadband, which provides real accountability
  • ISPs spend money on lobbying, not customer or community engagement
  • With the derecho – lost power, no internet even after the power came back, but community network had broadband bc the line for its gateway is buried
  • People want to work from home, but whether or not they have access to the internet makes their work from home a variable quality compared to working in an office
  • Are there places that have done community wireless before? (yes!)
  • We heard some negatives about mesh wireless, from this article.
  • Suggestion for organizing other networks: visit the ANCs
  • We are lost when we don’t think big enough
  • What has to occur, we have to say, we want an alternative instruction
  • We assume that we will fail when we don’t take control of our problems
  • Start by thinking big
  • Make the government work for us
  • We settle for less, then we don’t even get that
  • Pepco & Verizon aren’t supposed to determine our destinies
  • Classic situation: think both small and big at the same time

Then we discussed visioning: What is the best we could want for internet infrastructure and access in DC?

  • We want municipal pipelines and WiFi
  • Tech is isolative. People should understand the technology. The need for a large amount of education and practice means we should create learning beds, so people can increase their understanding.
  • We need something tangible here. We should generate a larger and a smaller vision, like let’s have access in parks and homes.
  • Every child will have access and hardware
  • Cheap municipal option for access that’s great, and then community mesh networks. OCTO needs to allow the community to connect, then we can have fast local access and a sense of community.
  • Reasonable municipal control of fiber in the ground, and totally free of censorship, surveillance, and self-identity is a choice.
  • We have total access available, but we need to work on the government to maintain good service for all – freedom to share resources
  • All communications services would be a utility, owned by the people, and government would provide physical infrastructure, system would be totally neutral – content ownership by originators, and abolish copyright & no software or business patents
  • Establish right for freedom to communicate, and let people know “you own this.” people don’t yet feel ownership. Also, moving into new centers of commons: change post offices into community centers before private developers scoop them up
  • DC-NET / DC-CAN is useful and shared to all, shared through community-controlled wireless mesh networks. Try to bridge a gap – have a huge mesh and good fiber. We must build mesh networks that make the idiotic dichotomy of access and the digital divide obvious.

Derecho Community Wireless

I came home from the Allied Media Conference to a DC melting in 100+ degree heat and a home without Internet access, courtesy of the now-infamous east coast derecho. Verizon provides our home Internet service, but they did not restore it until this past Thursday – five days after the storm. Happily we still had access thanks to the community wireless network, since the gateway in our part of the network uses Comcast. Comcast could have easily come down during the storm as well, but because the lines were separate, and on opposite sides of the street, people had a recourse. I noticed that the network had much less bandwidth available during Verizon’s outage. We never lost power either, thanks to the power lines being buried under the street.

Despite 70 mph winds and downed trees and limbs, that community-controlled infrastructure never went down. If MtPCWN already had direct chat running on the network, people could have easily logged on and started checking if everyone was ok – even if Comcast and Verizon were both down. As long as folks have Wi-Fi devices with batteries and the routers have power, we can communicate easily during a disaster.

At HacDC the other day, someone suggested that we could fortify some of the routers with backup battery supplies, specifically for use in disaster scenarios. This would be a good idea for a retrofit for a few key MtPCWN routers. When neighborhoods plan out community infrastructure, they could designate a certain number of routers – maybe 40% – as “critical infrastructure,” with the implication that they should be able to run for up to x hours, and connect to other critical infrastructure, in case of a power outage.

Treat It Like Infrastructure!

I had the great pleasure to speak to Nick Feamster‘s NOISELab group about Commotion and the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network while I was at Georgia Tech for ICTD 2012 last week. One of the Commotion slides shows a graphic of MIT’s RoofNet mesh network. When Nick saw this, he laughed – “I was a RoofNet node!” he exclaimed. “But people would just shove them next to their windows, or even dangle them out of windows so the routers hung only by the Ethernet cable.” Sometimes the network would go down for a week or more until the admins discovered that someone had a party over the weekend and a reveler knocked out a router’s cord from the power outlet.

Compare this to MtPCWN. In MtPCWN, all of the routers are mounted externally on the roof as high as possible, and we ensure that the power / Ethernet cord enters the building as securely as can be done with our resources. We even make sure that the PoE injector plugs into the wall close to the occupant’s existing Internet router, so if they ever choose to become a gateway, it won’t be a headache to connect their bandwidth to the public network. The hardware is all Ubiquiti and high-quality, and the silicone-filled Ethernet cable is designed for outdoor deployment. Meanwhile, the Broadband Bridge’s Bloomingdale network comprises almost no rooftop nodes, uses cheaper and weaker OM1Ps, and lacks any gateways right now – out of 26 routers in the network.

Preston Preparing the Ethernet Cable

I discussed these thoughts with Brian, who responded thusly: “If you want community-controlled infrastructure, you have to treat it like infrastructure.” That’s right. Our infrastructure must be appropriately priced, but if we use “cheap,” we’ll get “cheap” in return. If we think of community wireless as a community “hobby” or equate it with other “volunteer” efforts like cleaning up a park, then our expectations are the same as they are for other hobbies or half-day outings with pizza at the end. There’s plenty right with pizza at the end, but we should look to the Verizons and the FM radio stations of the world to understand how they manage their physical infrastructure. Towers are designed to stand for decades. Access to antennae is heavily restricted. Providers take great pains to place repeaters and broadcast towers atop of the highest ridges and the tallest buildings. Compare this with one of the Broadband Bridge network’s erstwhile gateways, a cafe. Their gateway Bridge router is placed haphazardly on the server side of their bar, an area that is not only high traffic, but experiences high and random throughput of dishes, liquids, mugs and plates. If we could take one hour to put it somewhere more out of reach and use cable staples to keep the cable out of line, most of the problem is solved.

Much of this is about control on the telco’s part, the problem we are trying to solve with community wireless networks. But we can’t associate everything about their infrastructure with their control. I think that one of the unexpected successes of MtPCWN so far is that because we treat it like infrastructure, it’s not in the way of people’s daily lives at the host locations. When the router is securely mounted on the roof and the cable doesn’t intrude on a resident’s regular passage, they can ignore it 99% of the time. That’s a good thing, because humans are humans, and we make mistakes. Keeping the devices out of sight and out of mind in this case is part of what makes community infrastructure human-focused. It’s accessible when we need it, but respects our ability to make a mess of things.

The Risk of Information Catastrophe

The other evening I watched Apocalypto for the first time. Great movie!

Mel Gibson wanted his film to depict “civilizations and what undermines them.” Apocalypto shows the stresses on the Mayan civilization’s means of production – maize failure, lack of rain, plague, and socio-political turmoil, only soon to be followed by Spaniards and what hell they would bring to Mesoamerica.

Today we live in a so-called knowledge age, in which our civilization-wide and personal access to prosperity – and thus effectively the source of power – is heavily correlated with our access to the means of knowledge production.

Communications is one of those means to knowledge. Our networks can leverage our access to knowledge, and thus prosperity for ourselves and our communities, if we design them appropriately and according to the right values. Notably, if we use a community-centric social process to design the network with values of community prosperity and resilience built-in to the network, then an increase of prosperity through the network would yield more power in the community to affect our world and tell our own stories.

In Apocalypto, the source of the Mayan crisis in the early 1500s is drought. Drought brings maize failure and community turmoil, which leads to starvation, the destruction of villages and human sacrifice by the religious-state complex. These events and conditions leave the Maya people already reeling before the Spaniards arrive on their shores to eventually destroy their society.

That’s a dramatic example, but our communities are no less bound by the need for resilience today than communities in Mesoamerica were at that time. In the recent recession, the financial services industry dipped sharply from contributing 8.3% of US GDP in 2006, to less than 6% in 2009. A ~2..5% drop in an industry with a significant chunk of the wealth generation of the country is bound to create reverberations for many, and harsh shocks for some. This doesn’t only hold for GDP – any reduction in the capacity of the means of production produces these reverberations and shocks.

Our communications networks are to our economy like what rainfall was to the Mayans. If a drought caused so many bad turns for their society then, what would be the result of an information catastrophe today? Our ability to leverage network effects while maintaining resilience in our communities has eroded in many places, and the integrity of our networks is at constant risk. We outsource our communications to giant corporations, who maintain facilities that run wires or beam signals from far away. It may be economically efficient for them to build their network that way, but this does not serve the needs of the community. As much as we hate telecom in less-catastrophic times, the specter of an abrupt and extended communications drought should make us think about the consequences when we lack those resources and skills in our communities.

Start with the People: Building a Community Wireless Network in Mount Pleasant

This was originally posted at the Open Technology Initiative website.

If you are not yet familiar with Mount Pleasant, here’s a chance to learn about one of DC’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It’s a diverse area not far from downtown DC, featuring a main street lined with locally-owned businesses. Many of these shops and restaurants are owned and run by the area’s large Latino community, which has long been central to shaping the neighborhood’s character. However, over the past decade rising housing prices have pushed many in the Latino community east towards Georgia Avenue.

In May, I moved to Mount Pleasant and started to learn about the area. In order to encourage community-building and local empowerment and to increase local information-sharing and opportunities for civic engagement, I decided to use skills and ideas garnered from my work at the Open Technology Initiative to organize a community wireless network. Despite my excitement to get started, I didn’t want to rush in without first connecting with the people, the histories, networks, skill sets, and local knowledge already present in the community.

My first step was technical: with the help of my OTI colleagues, I specified the hardware for the network and prepared the technology for installation. The first-stage plan was to install a few “nodes” (wireless access points) in order to establish the form and structure of the mesh network – open, interoperable, unfiltered, and decentralized. Then, at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, I handed out fliers directing people to an online survey gauging their interest in organizing a community wireless network in the neighborhood. I also posted a few of the fliers in local businesses on Mount Pleasant Street. But I needed to go deeper in order to really connect with the existing social networks of people and projects.

Several of my neighbors suggested that I meet Anya Schoolman, a community leader who organized the Mount Pleasant Solar Co-Op. Anya and her son Walter have worked on the co-op for several years, and through this process they have helped residents install solar panels on the roofs of over 100 homes in the neighborhood, which enables them to share solar-generated electricity with the rest of the community. Anya generously offered to host a gathering at her house in July, which we promoted through the listservs she created for the co-op. Thanks to her work in the community, Anya and her home enjoy “community anchor institution” status as a hub of activity in Mount Pleasant. Neighbors know and trust her, and since she provided an introduction to my invitation email on neighborhood listservs, recipients understood the context of participatory community building and neighborhood improvement.

About ten people came to the house gathering. We discussed the potential of the network and how to get it running, and five people (myself included) committed to becoming neighbor-links by installing a mesh router on top of our roofs – a process people were already familiar with due to their association with the solar co-op. Thus far we’ve installed two nodes and are planning to install at least three more in the coming months – and new folks have come forward who want to add to the network as well.

Bill Sets the Mounting Brackets

As we move forward, our plan is to focus on working with underserved groups in Mount Pleasant — people who may not be able to afford monthly contracts, or who are looking for tools to organize to address the effects of displacement of longtime residents due to rising housing costs. We hope to provide a framework that allows the diverse neighborhood to organize together in order to address the trends that affect everyone’s quality of life.

Stay tuned.