Common sense: An examination of three Los Angeles community WiFi projects that privileged public funding over commons-based infrastructure management » The Journal of Peer Production
Several high-profile incidents involving entire communities cut off from broadband access—the result of natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy in the Northeastern United States in 2012, to totalitarian governments in Egypt and Tunisia shutting down infrastructure in 2011—have raised awareness of the vulnerabilities inherent in a centralized internet. Policymakers are increasingly interested in the potential of community mesh networks (Harvard University, 2012), which use a decentralized architecture. Still, government agencies rarely fund community WiFi initiatives in U.S. cities. Three grassroots mesh networks in Los Angeles are distinct, however, as both local and state agencies subsidized their efforts. By comparing a public goods framework with theory of the commons, this study examines how government support impacted L.A.-based community wireless projects.
By examining public investments in peer-to-peer networking initiatives, this study aims to better understand how substantial cash infusions influenced network design and implementation. Stronger community ties, self-reliance and opportunities for democratic deliberation potentially emerge when neighbors share bandwidth. In this sense, WiFi signal sharing is more than a promising “last mile” technology able to reach every home for a fraction of the cost required to lay fiber, DSL and cable (Martin, 2005). In fact, grassroots mesh projects aim to create “a radically different public sphere” (Burnett, 1999) by situating themselves outside of commercial interests. Typically, one joins, as opposed to subscribes to, the services. As Lippman and Reed (2003, p. 1) observed, “Communications can become something you do rather than something you buy.” For this reason, the economic theories of both public goods and the commons provide an ideal analytical framework for examining three community WiFi project in Los Angeles.
The value of this commons is derived from the fact that no one owns or controls it—not people, not corporations, not the government (Benkler 2001; Lessig, 2001). The peer-to-peer architecture comprising community wireless networks provides ideal conditions for fostering civic engagement and eliminating the need to rely on telecommunications companies for connectivity. Instead of information passing from “one to many,” it travels from “many to many.” The primary internet relies on centralized access points and internet service providers (ISPs) for connectivity. By contrast, in a peer-to-peer architecture, components are both independent and scalable. Wireless mesh network design includes at least one access point with a direct connection to the internet—via fiber, cable or satellite link—and nodes that hop from one device to the next
As the network’s popularity mounted, however, so did its challenges. The increasing prevalence of smartphones meant more mobile devices accessing Little Tokyo Unplugged. This required the LTSC to deploy additional access points, leading to signal interference. Network users overwhelmed LTSC staff with complaints about everything from lost connections to computer viruses. “We ended up being IT support for the entire community,” the informant said.
Money, yes. Meaningful participation, no.
Despite its popularity, the center shut down the WiFi network in 2010. “The decision was made that we couldn’t sustain it,” the informant said. While the LTSC (2010) invested nearly $3 million in broadband-related initiatives, the center neglected to seek meaningful participation from the wider Little Tokyo community. The LTSC basically functioned according to a traditional ISP model. In a commons, it is imperative that a fair relationship exists between contributions made and benefits received (Commons Sommerschule, 2012). However, the LTSC neither expected nor asked network users to contribute to Little Tokyo Unplugged in exchange for free broadband access. As a result, individual network users did not feel they had a stake in ensuring the stability of the network.
HSDNC board members believed free WiFi would facilitate more efficient communication with their constituents, coupled with “the main issue” of digital inclusion, according to an informant. “The reality is that poor, working class Latino members of our district have limited access to the internet. A lot of people have cell phones, but we see gaps,” this informant said. These comments exemplify how the pursuit of public funding began to usurp social-production principles associated with a networked commons. While closing the digital divide and informing the public about community issues are laudable goals, they are clearly institutional ones.
Rather than design Open Mar Vista/Open Neighborhoods according to commons-based peer production principles, the network co-founders sought ways to align the project with public good goals articulated by local and federal agencies. For instance, an informant stressed that community WiFi would enable neighborhood councils to send email blasts and post information online. This argument is a direct response to the city’s push for neighborhood councils to reduce paper correspondence with constituents (City of Los Angeles, 2010). Similarly, the grant application Open Neighborhoods submitted to the federal Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program—which exclusively funded broadband infrastructure and computer adoption initiatives—focused on the potential for community WiFi networks to supply Los Angeles’ low-income neighborhoods with affordable internet (National Telecommunications & Information Administration, 2010). The proposal is void of references to concepts associated with the commons, even though this ideological space can transform broadband infrastructure from a conduit to the internet into a technology for empowering participants. It seems that, ultimately, the pursuit of public funding supplanted initial goals of creating a WiFi network that fostered inclusivity and collaboration.
There’s little doubt that Manchester Community Technologies accepted a $453,000 state grant in exchange for a “mesh cloud” it never deployed. These findings suggest an inherent conflict exists between the quest to fulfill the state’s public good goals, and the commons-based community building necessary to sustain a grassroots WiFi network. One could argue that this reality should have prevented California officials from funding Manchester Community Technologies’ proposal in the first place. Specifically, a successful community WiFi initiative cannot be predicated on a state mandate to strengthen digital literacy skills and increase broadband adoption. Local businesses and residents typically share bandwidth as part of a broader effort to create an alternative communications infrastructure, beyond the reach of government—not dictated by government. Grassroots broadband initiatives run smoothly when participants are committed to the success of a common enterprise and share a common purpose. The approach taken by Manchester Community Technologies does not reflect these principles.