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.