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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.
In an attempt to regain some of its Silicon Valley shine, San Jose, California is taking another run at municipal Wi-Fi. The city hopes that by covering a 1.5 square mile block of downtown with fast, robust wireless Internet access, it will become more attractive to the technology entrepreneurs who have, in recent years, been more likely to set up shop in other parts of the valley.
San Jose has twice attempted to offer free public Wi-Fi through privately owned and operated networks. In 2004, Global Netoptex deployed hotspots that never really worked. In 2006, MetroFi tried offering advertising-supported wireless, but was unable to generate enough revenue to cover costs. Just two years later, after failed attempts to sell its networks to the cities in which they operated (including Santa Clara, Cupertino, and Portland, Oregon) MetroFi went out of business.
This time, the City is investing its own funds in a network that will both serve the City’s own communications needs and offer free public access. San Jose is paying approximately $100,000 in start-up costs, and is committing to $22,000 in annual operating expenses. The City’s CIO, Vijay Sammeta, says the City is getting “a sweetheart deal” in exchange for its willingness to be a testing ground for software and firmware updates. Applications will include wireless parking meters and digital pay-to-park signs. The City expects cost savings from moving from other wireless connections to the Wi-Fi network will balance out the annual operating expense.
The other is rural access lines; we have been apprehensive on moving, doing anything on rural access lines because the issue here is, do you have a broadband product for rural America? We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE.Whoa! LTE is what you more commonly hear called 4G in mobile phone commercials. The best they can do is eventually build a wireless network that allows a user to transfer just 2GB/month. That is fine for hand-held devices but it does nothing to encourage economic development or allow residents to take advantage of remote education opportunities. But even the CEO admits they are not bullish on LTE as the solution:
[W]e’re looking at rural America and asking, what’s the broadband solution? We don’t have one right now.Some may be wondering about "U-Verse" -- AT&T's super DSL that competes with cable in the wealthy neighborhoods of bigger cities. U-Verse cannot match the capacity or quality of modern cable networks but is better than older DSL technologies. But U-Verse is not coming to a rural community near you. For those who missed the fanfare last year, AT&T's U-Verse build is done. AT&T's lobbyists have probably forgotten to tell Georgia and South Carolina Legislators that the over 20 million AT&T customers without access to U-Verse are not going to get it.
New Hanover County and The City of Wilmington do not plan to charge people to use the WiFi capability made possible by the new network. As long as the service is free neither they nor other municipalities deploying the technology are likely to run afoul of anti-municipal network legislation that has been adopted in some areas.Recall that North Carolina passed a law last year to limit local authority to build networks that could threaten Time Warner Cable or CenturyLink's divine right to be the only service providers in the state (even as they refuse to invest in modern networks). These white spaces are sometimes called "Super Wi-Fi" because the public knows that Wi-Fi is wireless and therefore anyone can quickly grasp that "Super Wi-Fi" is newer, better, and perhaps even wireless(er). GovTech also covered the announcement:
According to the FCC, these vacant airwaves between channels are ideal for supporting wireless mobile devices. The FCC named the network “super Wi-Fi” because white spaces are lower frequency than regular Wi-Fi and, therefore, can travel longer distances. New Hanover County is deploying the super Wi-Fi in three public parks, starting with a playground area at Hugh MacRae Park on Jan. 26, followed by Veterans Park and Airlie Gardens. Other locations in Wilmington, N.C. — located in the county — will also have access to the new network.
That system never reached the entire city and was limited to outdoor use. Santa Clara FreeWiFi will work citywide, indoors as well as outdoors. A new, high-density design will provide up to 40 access points per square mile - compared with less than 30 access points for the MetroFi system.I share Esme Vos' reaction regarding its likely difficulties in actually functioning inside but the Santa Clara Free Wifi website strongly recommends that anyone who is planning to use it inside use a Wi-Fi- booster, which can be found at most tech stores. Silicon Valley Power, as we previously noted, has an extensive fiber-optic system that is already uses for its power management. That will provide the necessary backhaul to the wireless access points. This will undoubtedly be a nice amenity for those living or traveling in Santa Clara but it is unlikely to suffice for those who need reliable and high capacity connections to the Internet. It will be interesting to see who is ultimately paying for the Internet access charges as well as how the economics work out. The network will be helpful for remote meter readings -- perhaps the savings there will entirely pay for the public's usage of the network. Ponca City has been taking this approach for some time now and it seems to work for them.
“Without the combination, we think the wireless industry will be further weakened by continued hypercompetitive activity, particularly regarding subscriber acquisition costs,” said Nomura Securities analyst Mike McCormack. That means customers can still get lower rates as the industry competes for their dollars. T-Mobile, for example, will continue to be a low-cost competitor, according to consumer advocacy group Consumers Union. A survey showed that data plans from T-Mobile were $15 to $50 less per month than those offered by AT&T.An excellent reminder that what is best for Wall Street is not what is best for the 99%. Big companies like AT&T find competing for customers a hassle that lowers their profits -- they consider a market with four sellers to be hypercompetitive. In wireline, they have acquiesced to the "competition" of two competitors -- cable and DSL. This is one reason communities build their own networks -- the private sector is not truly competitive when it comes to ISPs and most communities have no prospect real of improvement absent a public investment. But we should rejoice in this victory -- because we earned it. Without the hard work of many grassroots groups, it is hard to imagine the Department of Justice or FCC standing up to such a powerful corporation.
The Personal Telco Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Portland, Oregon dedicated to the idea that people have a central role in how their networks are operated. We do that by building our own networks that we share with our communities, and by helping to educate others in how they can too. To date, we have done this using Wi-Fi technology. We began in 2000 by turning our own houses and apartments into wireless hotspots (or "nodes"), and then set about building networks in public locations such as parks and coffee shops. There are currently about 100 active nodes participating in our project. We would like to see people and businesses in every corner and on every block of the city participating.They have been involved in the discussion in Portland over how the City can ensure all residents and businesses have access to affordable, reliable, and fast connections to the Internet. I was just reminded of them by a video that discusses their work and some of the reasons communities need to build their own networks (below). They also have a YouTube channel with more videos about community broadband.
“Internet service has been a critical requirement for our programs for some time,” said Victoria Roberts, Community of Hope’s Deputy Director. “Through DC-CAN we are now able to get seven times more bandwidth for the same cost we previously paid, and the fiber network ensures that connection is truly reliable, which has been challenging in the neighborhoods we work in.”DC-Net is going beyond just providing access to their locations by setting up Wi-Fi access points for the neighborhood to use as well. DC-Net was created as a muni-owned fiber-optic network connecting schools, muni buildings, and libraries but has gone on to connect some federal agencies. The network has proved incredibly reliable -- far beyond what was provided by the incumbent or other national carriers. And now it is finding ways of delivering services to the people who may need them the most but have the least ability to pay.
Riverside, California, an innovative city of 300,000 in the eastern part of Los Angeles has been a broadband pioneer even though it sits in the shadow of tech centers like nearby Santa Barbara. Riverside’s accomplishment as a city catching up with the information age was evident when it was selected as one of the top 7 Intelligent Communities Award in 2011 by New York-based Intelligent Community Forum.
“It’s an honor to be selected as one of the top 7 cities in the world. It comes down to a couple factors, what communities are doing with broadband, but... includes digital inclusion, innovation, knowledge workforce (of folks within your community) and marketing advocacy... We rank very high in all those categories.” - City CIO Steve Reneker [Gigabit Nation Radio]
The cornerstone the city’s SmartRiverside initiative is a free public wireless network which covers 78% of the city’s 86 square miles. Established in 2007 by AT&T (which also offers DSL services in Riverside), the maximum speed of the network is 768kbps, which at just under 1Mbps is decent enough to surf the web and check emails. However the road to providing free Internet access and bridging the digital divide wasn’t so easy for Riverside.
The City issued a RFP in 2006 for a provider to deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network, with the goal of making the Internet accessible to users who can’t afford higher cost plans. The City met with respondents and a speed of 512kbps or about half a megabit was initially quoted as an entry-level speed that would complement existing services rather than compete against them. The contract was awarded to AT&T who hired MetroFi to build the network and charge the city a service cost of about $500,000 a year. MetroFi went bankrupt after completing only 25 square miles and Nokia Siemens took over but only completed up to the present level of coverage.
In 2007, the wifi network launched and began bridging the digital divide. Through the City’s digital inclusion efforts, not only were modest-income families able to obtain low cost or free PCs but also have means to use them with an Internet connection.
Two hours northwest of the nation’s capital lies rural Allegany County, in western Maryland on the border with Pennsylvania. In the mid-1990s, before cable internet was even widely available, the county launched a successful wireless carrier network that would expand into an envied public model. In 1996, the State of Maryland offered financial assistance to wire public schools. They used a wireless solution due to the high costs of fiber-optic cables then. To raise funds and pool grant dollars from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the school partnered with fellow agencies Allegany County, Allegany County Library System, and the City of Cumberland. The new Allegany County Network (AllCoNet) placed its first wireless antenna atop the courthouse, the county’s highest point, and launched the network at a cost of $4.3 million.
The network that evolved into AllCoNet began with far more modest goals than restoring prosperity to the county. In 1996, the State of Maryland offered financial incentives to help wire public school buildings for fast Internet access. But connecting the public schools with fiber-optic cable would have been prohibitively expensive. As an alternative, Jeff Blank, the microcomputing and networking supervisor for Allegany County Public Schools, suggested a wireless network in which signals would be transmitted via microwave relays, traveling from one high point to another. Mounting the first antenna at the top of the Allegany County courthouse, one of Cumberland's high points, seemed only logical, and so began a common-sense venture in interagency cooperation. (ARC Magazine)
The early justification for such a network was rooted in the private sector avoidance of building in rural areas but also the pressing demand for economic growth and good broadband technology being just outside the nation’s major eastern cities. To eliminate the Digital Divide, AllCoNet looked to provide carrier class, affordable service to public entities like government and schools while upholding an open access model to let private companies serve the public at reasonable costs -- avoiding massive infrastructure debt.