A decade ago, Philadelphia’s outdated sewer system—like much of the nation’s infrastructure—was crumbling, causing a nasty brew of storm-water, raw sewage, and pollutants to flow directly into local waterways. But the cash-strapped metropolis, home to over 1.5 million people, couldn’t afford to build a new system. So the city decided to think small—and local, and cooperative—to construct something big and different. The city rolled out its “Green City Clean Waters” plan in 2011: a 25-year effort to let residents take the lead in creating a web of small interconnected “green” infrastructure projects like roadside plantings, green roofs, porous pavements, street trees, and rain gardens.

Thinking local—and integrating social engagement into systems planning—means reimagining infrastructure as we know it. The key to the “Green City Clean Waters” plan was building layers of community engagement and partnerships over technical and governance systems. Now and for the next twenty years, schools and libraries will teach kids about water with hands-on active learning projects like rain gardens, while the city enforces requirements for the replacement of non-porous surfaces, offers funding and support for neighborhood initiatives, and streamlines bureaucratic procedures to facilitate their approval and success.

Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address pointed out, once again, the abysmal condition of the nation’s infrastructure (the American Society of Civil Engineers gives it a D+). Yet unusually for these discussions, Obama talked not just about waterways, transportation, and energy infrastructure, but also broadband. His solutions combined the standard way that our country has approached communications infrastructure since the mid-20th century—relaxing regulations to encourage the incumbent service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to build it out—with newer ideas, such as public-private partnerships and municipal fiber. All of these solutions together, he said, would “enable communities to succeed in our digital economy.”

Could Philadelphia’s approach to infrastructure hold some lessons for other systems—especially for broadband, which is by its nature distributed and interconnected? Although Obama did talk about lifting restrictions that prevent many local governments from building their own municipal networks (like the ones in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and in Lafayette, Louisiana), he didn’t talk about one model that holds the best hope for replicating Philly’s water success for broadband: community networking.

Community networks are bottom-up, grassroots projects set up by tech enthusiasts and local groups that care about digital access and community choice. They take all kinds of forms, from wireless mesh in neighborhoods to huge hybrid networks blanketing whole regions with a combination of DIY “microtrenched” fiber, so-called air fiber, and different kinds of wireless nodes.

One reason community networks don’t get discussed much is that there aren’t very many in this country. There are a few that have been around for a long time, like the Seattle Community Network with about 500 users, and newer networks that are growing fast, like WasabiNet in St. Louis and the Kansas City Freedom Network.

In the US, community networks struggle with challenges from internet service providers (ISPs). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when standards for wireless devices operating on so-called “unlicensed” WiFi frequencies were released, a number of community networking efforts sprung up only to die on the vine. Some of them, like Wireless Philadelphia, tried to partner with municipalities only to be slapped down by the incumbent ISPs, which argued that government-provided broadband service amounted to an unfair market advantage.

By contrast, it’s in Europe where community networking has really blossomed. For example, guifi.net is one of the largest networks. It’s over a decade old with about 60,000 users across Catalonia and is now growing into other countries. The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (AWMN) is also over a decade old, with about 5,000 users.

While American local networking communities continue to grapple with challenges from ISPs and reluctant municipal and federal partners—along with a general lack of support and awareness—the European Commission has initiated multiple research-based and prototyping efforts to understand and support community networks. While some European networks failed or were replaced by revenue-generating municipal projects, like Paris-SansFils, others have gone on to flourish as lively communities for technical and socioeconomic exploration. In some cases, such as AWMN’s new rural partner Sarantaporo.gr, these networks are producing new models for local economic development and governance.

guifi.net, for example, operates on a wholly different business and service provision model than, say, Verizon does. Subscribers do not pay for bandwidth, but rather donate on a voluntary basis to the guifi foundation.

Local businesses, ranging from tech companies to TV repair shops, learn how to set up network nodes, harness the foundation’s bandwidth, and set up service contracts with local users. Local governments occasionally kick-start the process by donating space on a hilltop for a big bandwidth pipeline to serve the area, or with a bit of start-up funding. Money does not flow to a big telecom conglomerate, but to entrepreneurs and start-ups who do maintenance, troubleshooting, and computer help for local users, including local schools and community groups.

Community networks like guifi can provide STEM learning opportunities, drive local economic development, and enable governments to engage in increasing digital access in light-touch ways. Because they are non-centralized, they also carry less risk of wide-spread failure in an emergency. While big networks are often subject to cascading failures (as was the case during Katrina, Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, and every other major disaster in recent years), smaller, more distributed networks can keep going, especially if they are built using renewable and redundant power sources.

Many U.S. cities are currently thinking about how to increase digital access and economic opportunity for the 27 percent of Americans who do not currently have broadband access in their homes. Because they are hybrid technical-social systems, community networks suggest one way to think about how we could build resilient infrastructure more cooperatively, with the engagement and leadership of local groups, without relying simply on corporate return on investment or government budgeting and planning as the only methods for providing universal communications access.

Here’s something else Obama didn’t say in his speech last week: We have a choice to make about broadband infrastructure. We could go down a path of centralized municipal control or privatization that could lead to an outcome like Detroit’s water department bankruptcy or Bolivia’s water uprisings. Or we could follow a path like Philly did with its water system, which has eased the city’s woes by incorporating local communities into building multiple, interconnected, distributed solutions. Already, the city has reduced the amount of stormwater flowing through its sewers by 80-90 percent, simply by stopping rain where it falls and allowing it to filter back into the ground.

It’s great that Obama is talking about municipal broadband. Now is also a great time to think about the different kinds of roles a local government can play in creating community-led networks: not necessarily as a utility provider, but as a collaborative partner that supports existing projects and coordinates multiple local capacities and resources.


This post appears courtesy of New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.