Bridging the Digital Divide


A new report (pdf), created by the Wireless Community Network Project, shows how wireless networks can be used as a Community Economic Development Tool for connecting low- and moderate-income residents to the Internet.

The report was funded in part by a Technology Opportunity Program grant. WCN is a project of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 that promotes livable, sustainable communities.

In 2003, CNT launched the Wireless Community Network project to develop pilot networks in three Illinois communities: North Lawndale, a low- and moderate-income African American neighborhood on Chicago’s west side; Pilsen, a mixed-income Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s near southwest side; and West Frankfort, a former coal mining town in Southern Illinois.

The project was the first of its kind in the United States and has generated a wealth of hands-on experience about how communities can launch their own networks. The project demonstrated how wireless access can move beyond “hot spots” and showed how low-income residents are interested in Internet access and how they use it creatively. Besides, Browder, other neighborhood beneficiaries of the networks used the Internet access to start their own businesses, thereby supplementing their incomes.

Wireless community networks can offer affordable access to the Internet while building community and strengthening the local economy, says CNT. A community wireless network works on a small, manageable scale and the community can be managed it locally.

Additionally, they can serve as important communications tools in times of need. This became apparent when two technicians from the CNT project traveled to southern Mississippi and northern Louisiana to assist with disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina. They were quickly able to launch a wireless network to provide essential phone and Internet communications from a shelter set up to serve hurricane victims.

MuniWireless notes the Public Technology Institute has a report, “Wi-Fi Done Right: Experiences from the Field” ($20), documents the real-world performance of more than 20 Wi-Fi applications. PTI was the lead consultant for Corpus Christi, Texas (population 293,000) which began work on their metropolitan WiFi network in 2003 while investigating how to improve its meter-reading system.

Perhaps one of the most interesting experiments is taking place in Portland, Oregon by Net Equality. They’ve “unwired” six low income apartment complexes, ranging in size from 6 to 150 apartments.

NetEquality, founded by Michael Burmeister-Brown and Dave Cannard some 2.5 years ago,is bridging the “digital divide” using inexpensive mesh technology, mostly sharing DSL lines. Originally NetEquality used LocusWorld mesh boxes but, at $300 each, the technology proved too expensive and cumbersome.

Today, working with the Housing Authority of Portland, Portland ISP Step House and Hacienda Community Development Corporation, they are using Meraki Minis. The $50 mesh box, developed from the MIT RoofNet Project, is still in trial stage. But the short hop meshing technology appears to be performing well, said Michael Burmeister-Brown in a phone call today.

The mesh-enabled Meraki Minis feature a detachable external antenna and minimal expertise to get up and running. They are expected to be available at their web store in the very near future. It may also be a solution for getting metropolitan WiFi inside homes. Meraki is based in Mountain View, California, and is backed in part by Google and Sequoia Capital.

Related DailyWireless articles include; PepWave Client Adds LCD, Ruckus Repeater for MetroFi, MuniFi Client Solution and Motorola’s Mesh Cloud.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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