Start with People: Community Mesh Wireless Networks and Digital Inclusion

More than a year ago, one of my friends challenged me to think about how communities could become more connected. We talked about amplifying existing social networks, empowering leadership, claiming ownership of the neighborhood’s development and its role in a city or town. I talked about participatory assessments for community action. Ever the engineer, Preston talked about technology.

Technology, and access to it, can drive community development. Specifically access to the Internet. The Internet has become a place a community can access information, communicate, address grievances with official institutions, support local entrepreneurs, expand educational access, and actively galvanize community action. And yet, too many communities in America still have only limited access to the Internet.

Although access to broadband has almost quadrupled in the past four years, according to today’s report on broadband growth from the White House, what does it mean for communities who are bypassed by the equipment necessary for Internet access? What does it mean for individuals who cannot afford to pay rates offered by the telecom giants? What does it mean for aspiring entrepreneurs, young students, and communities in need when they are excluded from one of the greatest tools of our time?

In the course of natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy or the tornadoes in Oklahoma, entire communities can lose access by depending on a single point of entry to the Internet. What happens when we are increasingly dependent on the Internet for information, news, and aid in times of emergency?

What about the voices that are marginalized in the conversation about building infrastructure that is not accountable to the public it serves?

Despite their increase over the past four years, these traditional models of connection ignore the issue of “digital inclusion” – by focusing on the service-delivery model, institutions determining access policy overlook the social dimensions of broadband adoption. Internet and broadband access policies need to understand the cultural, historical, social, and economic context to actually serve the communities they attempt to reach.

New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Institute describes this as “meaningful broadband adoption,” a process of analyzing not just the technology that allows people to access the Internet, but also the social layer of broadband access. [You can read more about “meaningful broadband adoption” and OTI’s findings in the International Journal of Communication.]

Technology works best when it integrates and complements the system in which it works. So why, in the case of the Internet, does it not look like the social networks it has come to represent? Why don’t we connect to the Internet like we connect to each other?

That’s Preston’s idea, and it’s a simple one. Start with people. Let’s build a network that relies on the internal organizing capability of communities to build a new way to access the Internet.

They are called community mesh wireless networks, and over the past year, he has helped build networks and train individuals to manage them in Washington, DC, Detroit, and Red Hook, Brooklyn. His project not only encourages technological development, but also the development of civil society – empowering individuals to have a greater say in their access to resources and building an infrastructure that will support them. Community mesh wireless networks function like real relationships – decentralized, opportunistic, and when highly connected, they are resilient and self-healing.

Preston thinks technology should conform itself to human relationships and behaviors, and not the other way around. That is where real growth and innovation occurs. Preston wants to develop that potential in communities across the United States through the Millennial Trains Project, a crowd-sourcing competition for young innovators and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas across the country.

That’s where you come in. Preston needs help raising money to be a part of this opportunity.

Through this opportunity, Preston will work to help train and develop new community mesh wireless networks in the Bay Area, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Martinsburg, and DC. He will also introduce communities to Commotion Wireless, an open-source platform proposed by OTI.

By supporting this project, you will help Preston transfer skills to communities to be able to build and maintain their own community mesh wireless networks – expanding access for people in low-income and marginalized communities.

Imagine a community center providing access to the Internet, allowing more people to apply for jobs, learn new skills, and receive important information. Imagine schools providing more Internet access for young learners to access the web, and digital communities to ensure more parents are active in their children’s school and education. Imagine developing countries being able to provide access to the world, to education, to health resources, to entrepreneurial support for their populations attempting to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. Imagine the marginalized and those that struggle to make ends meet able to add their voices to the national conversation about how to make our country and our communities better.

Imagine a community working together, building relationships and empowered by their ownership of an invaluable resource. Imagine what else they can accomplish when they continue to work together for the betterment of their communities, their neighbors, their friends.

As Preston says, “When we learn about and build our networks together, we put people before technology.”

You can find out more about Preston’s work and his proposal here. Please support an incredible idea to change the ways communities can access the Internet. You have the power to be a part of something big.

About Preston: Preston Rhea is a Program Associate for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, supporting OTI’s mission of digital justice for its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program work with research, analysis, writing and program assistance. Preston also researches and writes on community-based communications and technology activism. Preston and I worked together in AIESEC, and he continues to be an incredibly supportive friend and mentor as I work in my own way to help develop communities. You can follow Preston on Twitter or read his blog here.


SUPPORT PRESTON’S PROJECT HERE. The deadline to contribute is July 1, 2013.


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