Muni wireless, metro wireless, ubiquitous access...what defines community wireless? This was part of a good panel discussion at the 2006 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) sponsored by N-TEN. David Keys from the City of Seattle's Community Technology Program proposes these characteristics:
- System of interconnected access points
- Either a closed or an open Internet connection
- Shared Internet bandwidth
- Hotspots are free
- Portal content is available
The most prominent reason for deploying community wireless appears to be the digital divide. Keys posed a interestingly related question: What’s the lowest bandwidth that is essential for delivery of services? Or for someone to be able to work from home? For example, if tiered service means that lower-income people (using a slower speed) take three hours to fill out an application instead of two hours, are we simply creating a new set of digital divide issues?
Something else to be mindful of: how do you ensure that wifi devices get into the hands of your target users? San Francisco’s TechConnect has a $200 device allowance for supporting low-income residents. Not many other wireless communities have a solution, though there are some analogous efforts made by the digital-divide crossers at One Economy.
On the technology itself, Keys opines that straight wifi is better in a corridor, while mesh networks are better when you need to bridge areas. Seattle is using plain old Linksys routers in waterproof housings, which are strung from light poles like pendants. They haven’t supported use of repeaters since they don’t want to lose the data for how many logins/how long of session for each user, etc. With the repeater, they can only see the login session for the repeater box....not the number of folks that went online via the repeater box. I would think this was an easily solvable problem. The guys at Feeva would be happy to take care of it, I'm sure.
Seattle’s wifi project has been in public parks, a couple of business districts, and a couple of low-income neighborhoods for about nine months. The network portal is owned by local businesses, which have been chipping in for the maintenance costs. Keys highlighted that it’s critical for NPOs to be at the table for wifi services, and to ensure that they will be present in the portal. That's looking like very valuable real estate.
What about taking this pilot and making it city-wide? If Seattle’s goal is to enable two-way video, then wifi won’t be ready any time soon. As a result, Keys is looking for partners that can provide fiber to the home, creating a municipal Internet system. DynamicCity is doing something like this in Utah, but good luck finding more regional networks or municipalities setting precedents.