In a series of posts over the past two months, I’ve looked at efforts by private companies and city governments to use unlicensed spectrum to improve choice, affordability, innovation and service quality in the communications sector.
In this post I’ll add another type of entity to the mix of unlicensed spectrum innovators: local neighborhoods, where issues, interactions and initiatives tend to be more personal and place-based.
One focal point for this kind of neighborhood-driven network initiative is Detroit, a city facing severe financial constraints and one of the nation’s lowest levels of Internet penetration (see tables in this earlier post). In this highly challenging environment, a community-based organization called Detroit Digital Stewards, working closely with the Open Technology Institute (OTI), has been developing human and technical systems to support low-cost wireless mesh networks that support local needs. The open-source OTI technology, called Commotion, is also being used in Red Hook, NY following Hurricane Sandy and in projects overseas.
According to an April 2014 report in the New York Times, the State Department has provided financial support for Commotion’s development, as a means to help dissidents use decentralized mesh networks to bypass government surveillance and censorship (ironically this occurred around the same time the NSA was developing surveillance technology later exposed by Edward Snowden).
The State Department provided $2.8 million to a team of American hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system, called a mesh network, as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely than they can on the open Internet.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Diana Nucera, Director of the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP), which coordinates the Digital Stewards project. That conversation helped me appreciate that, while it may lack the scale (and certainly the funding) of New York’s LinkNYC project or Google’s Project Fi, the Digital Stewards program (one of multiple Allied Media Projects) has some unique strengths worthy of study, support and sharing. For example:
- It is very cost-effective relative to other approaches, a particularly important factor in communities where the need for investment capital greatly exceeds supply, the cost of capital can be painfully high, and spending power and credit scores can be painfully low.
- Its networks (currently five are in operation in Detroit) are designed and deployed at the neighborhood level, but can be scaled up to larger areas based on need and available resources.
- These neighborhood networks are designed and evolve based on local needs, as expressed via direct participation in decision-making rather than financial payments to service providers or reliance on government officials who may later be voted out of office and their favored projects cancelled.
- It views high-speed Internet connectivity as a tool to support creation and sharing—not just consumption—of digital content and services, a vision that calls for networks that are more symmetric than those often available today, especially in low-income areas.
- It is designed and managed to support local citizens as creators of content and services, and also as network designers, builders, managers, technicians and innovators. To help achieve this it has worked with OTI to develop extensive training materials.
- It is built on a flexible open source platform, which reduces costs, increases flexibility, and encourages innovation by local projects and open sharing of innovations across projects.
- It employs and encourages democratic and collaborative modes of decision-making, which supports its focus on addressing real needs vs. stimulating usage aimed at maximizing profits rather than quality of life.
- As noted above, its decentralized mesh architecture has potential to help the network maintain security and privacy.
My sense is that there’s much to learn from the work of the Detroit Digital Stewards team, OTI and Commotion projects in other locations, as they break new ground in bringing affordable and empowering connectivity to underserved communities.