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.

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.