Community Mesh Networking Movement

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By Gwen Shaffer:

"Community broadband networks are just one element of a larger media reform movement focused on ensuring media outlets serve the public interest, as well as foster independent and diverse sources of information (Free Press, 2010; Media Access Project, 2010; Reclaim the Media, 2010). The relatively weak position of Wi-Fi signal-sharing activists in the United States is working both for and against the movement’s best interests. While Internet activists are deploying peer-to-peer networks in numerous cities, these efforts remain mostly underground and have yet to draw in a critical mass of participants— certainly not enough to attract the ire of the incumbent ISPs. Should the telecommunications industry feel compelled to squash signal-sharing initiatives in the future, it will likely attempt to do so through a combination of legal and political strategies. As Thomas (2006) points out in his assessment of media reform efforts, any analysis of social movements must account for the fact that “the language and styles of corporate organizational management practices are now an essential part of the organizational culture of movement actors” (p. 23). For instance, several of the most visible ad hoc network leaders do not merely adopt characteristics typical of corporate culture, they are corporate. Additionally, social movement organizations deal with the dichotomy between fighting to achieve long-term goals—in the case of the Wi-Fi signalsharing movement, expanding broadband access by creating mesh networks—and obtaining the necessary management skills and resources to survive day to day.

The activists behind community mesh networks possess access to the media and relationships with policymakers. People initiating and joining non-profit signal-sharing networks, the core of this grass-roots movement, typically boast technology and IT knowledge. In fact, they are in a position to mobilize only because they have acquired these resources. Those who join signal-sharing communities are linked through common interests, including the desire for ubiquitous connectivity and digital inclusion and to force change in the telecommunications industry. Finally, many broadband subscribers who choose to share their wireless signals do so for ideological reasons, with the intention of making a political statement. Still, the question arises: Why do people join social movements when they can benefit from the work of others willing to bear the costs of achieving a common good? What are the incentives to contribute rather than “free-ride” (Olson, 1965)? This question must be posed because the costs of defending an interest are obvious; time, money, and even safety are often sacrificed for the common good. Successful new social movements result in collective benefits, and participants often get involved in hopes of obtaining some personal resource (McCarthy & Zald, 1987). Actors perceive mobilizing as a pathway for aggregating resources. If everyone chips in, resources will flow into the movement, making it that much more efficient. While most peer-to-peer networks were founded to provide Internet access to disenfranchised members of a community, the benefits to elite participants in the movement should not be ignored, either."

From the conclusion, regarding Digital inclusion:

"A commitment to expanding digital inclusion is a primary incentive to develop mesh communities, based on data collected during interviews with network founders and administrators. Quinn, the informant from the Sun Belt region, reported that he and fellow group members believe “the digital divide is a real problem and it is widening every day.” Other informants spoke in detail about daily tasks—from banking transactions to obtaining government services and filling out job applications—that require online access. Jack, who administered a community network in a college town in a Prairie state, said the project began with the idea that it could play a “social justice” role. “We think the network can perform and reinforce a lot of the good functions of a neighbourhood organization, in that it makes people aware they are not on some island of information,” he said. Jack noted that his grass-roots initiative enabled school children to get online from home for the first time, demonstrating that wireless community networks can help close the digital divide. Victor, who developed a mesh network in his Southern city, asserted that if the government paid for just a few gateways to the Internet and then distributed mesh routers, the digital divide could be nearly eliminated. Friends who shared a passion for IT founded a mesh network in a Southwestern city, reported Jordan. “At first, we had no higher purpose,” he stressed, noting that early deployments were in privately owned apartment complexes. However, network founders ultimately decided to undertake projects only in affordable and lowincome housing developments. “We didn’t want to be involved in just hooking up landlords for their own benefit,” Jordan reported. Quinn, the founder of the signalsharing community in the Sun Belt, said he is confident that by contributing free bandwidth, participants in his network are creating an alternate “path” for disenfranchised residents who may have computers but lack connectivity.

However, other informants reported scepticism that peer-to-peer networking can help municipal governments meet digital inclusion goals. “It makes us feel good to say we’re bridging the digital divide, but I’m not sure that’s really the case,” asserted Howard, the informant who deployed a mesh network in a college town in the Great Lakes region. Jordan, who administers the ad hoc network in the Southwest, characterized ad hoc networks as a symptom of the problem—lack of Internet access—rather than the solution. Signal-sharing maximizes the efficiency of bandwidth that is available, “but it’s only filling a gap” that municipal and federal governments need to address, Jordan said. Alexis, the informant closely involved in the Ubiquitous Net project, stressed that while free access to the Web is a key element to closing the digital divide, it is “just one” necessary piece for getting low-income people online. “It’s about social justice, which is more complex than giving someone a router,” Alexis said. As a result, her organization is working to expand the wireless community network to include access to computers and content that is “personally relevant” to new Internet users.

The comments from these informants embody the spirit of resource mobilization theory, which purports that social movement actors capitalize on personal resources and knowledge to achieve their goals (Kendall, 2008). Rather than merely complaining about a problem, such as a lack of affordable Internet access, a core group of activists brings together other disaffected community members to create an organizational structure. This group then collectively draws upon its resources—perhaps ties to the political establishment, professional skills, media contacts, or financial capacities—to alter the situation (Kendall, 2008). The grass-roots network leaders interviewed for this study all recognized the digital divide as a problem in their communities and, at the same time, determined the government was unlikely to address it. In reaction, they developed and implemented action plans to provide broadband access on their own. The mere fact that, in a peer-to-peer network, discourse takes place over communityowned infrastructure eliminates the mediating role typically played by corporations. As a result, these social actors may create cultural and political meanings on their own terms. By helping close the digital divide, these actors are creating wider structural change in both broadband infrastructure and the public sphere.

Like the goal of closing the digital divide, a majority of informants mentioned a desire to strengthen community. Jacob, whose non-profit runs a mesh network in the rural Southeast, envisions Internet access as a “community-building tool” for a region located far from both the “seat of power” in the state capital and the economic centre of the state. Similarly, Zachary, who helped launch three mesh networks in the Midwest, stressed that he and his peers are not “technologists.” Rather, they perceive Internet access as a tool for achieving ambitious economic development goals. Zachary cited the Internet’s potential to open new commercial markets for local entrepreneurs—potentially enabling them to “compete with”—and “connect” neighbours to one another. Howard, the study participant from a Great Lakes college town, cited ad hoc networks worldwide as an opportunity to help disenfranchised residents feel less intimidated by the Internet. “The Internet is a very sterile, lonely place, and the fact that this type of project builds community is pretty remarkable,” Howard noted.

Repeatedly, informants reported a desire to help close the digital divide as a driving force behind the creation and maintenance of their wireless initiatives. Yet the data reveal that even dedicated supporters of peer-to-peer networks harbour doubts regarding the potential for these initiatives to bring Internet access to the masses. These comments highlight the reality that even “successful” grass-roots initiatives are limited in their reach. While volunteer-led efforts serve an important purpose—in terms of raising awareness, building community, teaching skills, and expanding access in small communities—some informants suggest digital inclusion goals are more likely to be fulfilled when government officials and incumbent carriers intervene. This is unlikely to happen, however, without a more progressive political economic model that takes into account civic engagement and deliberative discourse, as opposed to market considerations alone. Policy decisions that increase media consolidation and lock out landline competition are the result of a political economy that favours a concentrated, corporate-run media structure over local, independent broadcasting and publishing outlets. Currently, the U.S. Congress and other governing bodies in the Americas tend to consider how their decisions impact industry, rather than how they can enhance “the lifeworld” (Habermas, 1987), with its focus on how people interact, how they make rational decisions, how they contribute to culture, and how they contextualize life experiences. Until governments develop policies that legitimize and encourage peer-to-peer signal-sharing, it will be difficult for community Wi-Fi networks to achieve digital inclusion objectives."


  • Article: Peering Ahead: An Examination of Peer-to-Peer Signal-Sharing Communities that Create Their Own Affordable Internet Access. By Gwen Shaffer, University of California, Irvine. Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 36 (2011) 69-90