Common Sense: An Examination of Three Los Angeles Community WiFi Projects that Privileged Public Funding Over Commons-Based Infrastructure Management
32 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2017 Last revised: 5 Jul 2017
Date Written: March 28, 2017
Public funding for community WiFi initiatives in the United States is rare—despite that these networks are comparatively low-cost to deploy, and that a peer-to-peer model of connectivity may foster community and boost civic engagement. However, in 2015 the New York City Economic Development Corporation awarded the Red Hook Initiative several million dollars to expand its community WiFi network in Brooklyn. This development suggests a potential shift in attitude toward government support for grassroots WiFi networks. Therefore, it is critical to understand the successes and failures of projects that previously operated with government grants and subsidies. Using both a public goods framework and theory of the commons, this study examines three community WiFi networks in geographically and ethnically diverse L.A. communities subsidized by the city of Los Angeles or by California state agencies.
Specifically, this research examines whether Little Tokyo Unplugged, Open Mar Vista and a cluster of network sponsored by Manchester Community Technologies relinquished the ability to function as commons by accepting, or simply pursuing, grants and resources from public agencies. Each of these initiatives faltered, despite a combined $700,000 in government funding. The analysis is based on interviews with 11 key stakeholders, as well as a comprehensive review of relevant grant reports, archived website pages and media coverage.
In exchange for government subsidies, these three community WiFi projects prioritized public good goals articulated by policymakers—closing the digital divide in Los Angeles through infrastructure deployment and encouraging computer usage. In order to fulfill promises made to granting agencies, these community WiFi networks treated wireless internet access as a commodity, rather than as a tool for community empowerment. Significantly, none of the networks developed a strategy to remain sustainable after public subsidies expired, or after government agencies rejected requests for additional funding. Had these three L.A.-based community WiFi projects privileged a commons-based approach, characterized by inclusivity and a flat governance structure, they may have thrived. In a commons, communication systems are truly democratic, in the sense that community members themselves determine how the network is designed and deployed. Neither corporations nor policymakers get to influence those decisions.
The study concludes that, ultimately, money and resources provided by government agencies are inadequate substitutes for volunteers who traditionally share skills and passion to sustain community WiFi networks. However, the findings recognize that it is certainly possible for grassroots initiatives to partner with government agencies, while continuing to manage infrastructure as a commons. In 2010, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition allocated a portion of its $1.8 million grant from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to launch community wireless networks in several neighborhoods. A guiding principle of this project, which continues to expand, is to enable community members to create their own technologies and to help shape communications infrastructure. The research stresses that both policymakers and community broadband groups must agree to balance potentially competing goals.
Keywords: broadband access, commons framework, public goods, mesh networks
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