Looking for our new site?

From the Digital Divide to Digital Excellence

  • and Laura Forlano, Alison Powell and Gwen Shaffer
February 1, 2011 |
Publication Image

Communications technologies have continued to evolve and now increasingly provide opportunities for deploying low-cost broadband. However, conventional commercial business models for providing broadband often create bottlenecks to spreading connectivity.  As a consequence, new efforts to bridge the digital divide will need to examine alternative models of ownership, technology, economic development and social inclusion.  Over the past five years, successful community and municipal wireless networks have been overlooked and often dismissed, yet they hold tremendous promise for improving our nation’s approach to building communications infrastructure, empowering local communities and addressing the digital divide.

A number of cities and community and municipal wireless networks around the world have developed innovative approaches in pursuit of providing universal access to citizens. In the United States, Lawrence Freenet provides free and low-cost broadband access to residents and businesses in Lawrence, Kansas, with a focus on serving poor and underserved residents.  The majority of residents under the poverty line receive free access and equipment while the remaining 10 percent pay to rent the equipment.  In Lompoc, California, a municipal network managed by the city’s utility department provides affordable wireless access to residents that can be easily added to their existing utility bill. Minneapolis has served as a leader in digital inclusion issues through its municipal wireless partnership with US Internet.  Wireless Minneapolis created a Digital Inclusion Fund (to distribute a percentage of the wireless revenue to the community) and also provides tech-support, content management tools, a community portal and free website hosting for neighborhood associations.  These resources, which are managed and run by the communities themselves, go a long way towards providing crucial communications services and information for underserved communities. 

In parallel, community wireless networks in Europe have long been delivering low-cost access to broadband in rural and underserved communities.  For example, in Berlin, a city that has struggled with depopulation, high unemployment and budget deficits since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the community wireless network Freifunk has provided free Internet access to residents who cannot afford commercial services since 2002.  The group also holds weekly trainings to educate the community about how to design, build and administer the wireless network.  Freifunk provides an important source of local knowledge-sharing along with a vibrant social infrastructure that supports the network.  More recently, the community group has been in discussions with the city government to collaborate on creating a citywide wireless network to leverage the interests, needs and goals of both private and non-profit providers. 

Community wireless networks in rural Denmark and Spain have played a similar role in regional economic development.  For example, in Jutland, Denmark—a farming, fishing and manufacturing economy of over 80,000 people—the community wireless network has allowed residents to remain in the region rather than move away to a larger city in search of employment opportunities.  According to the network’s founder, 100 new jobs have been created in each village in the region.  The story is similar in rural Catalonia, Spain, where residents are now able to work from home rather than making the 90-minute trip into Barcelona.  Low-cost Internet access has also been important in agriculture and farming applications.  In addition, businesses have opened remote branches to serve the local community.

This report details the alternative models that underpin the examples above. While no two cases are exactly alike, with each reflecting an intensely local focus and a specific response to local needs and challenges, there are lessons that can be taken and applied elsewhere.  They include ownership models that emphasize shared responsibility among stakeholders; the wealth of innovation in flexible, interoperable and open technologies; and strategies that leverage these models and technologies for economic development and social inclusion through truly holistic and locally oriented processes.

We hope this report will map out a vision for community wireless networks in the future and help other cities and communities learn from the successes described so that they might develop their own unique approaches to local broadband needs. By leveraging local capacity, which can range from the technological smarts of community residents to antennae mounts on buildings, it is clear there are many alternative models cities can utilize to advance their communications infrastructure. As the United States faces the most challenging economic climate in generations and a job market that is increasingly dependent on the ability to connect to the Internet, cities around the country cannot rely solely on existing conventional commercial business models to provide affordable broadband to their citizens or wait for existing providers to consider alternative models to promote universal access.  The current conditions call for creativity, and thankfully, alternative models have already demonstrated successful approaches to inspire future innovations.