Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Community-Owned Internet Access: How These Neighborhoods are Redesigning the Traditional Provider Model

May 13, 2014
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Community-Owned Internet Access: How These Neighborhoods are Redesigning the Traditional Provider Model
Resident of Red Hook, Brooklyn. John Moore/Getty Images
The Red Hook Initiative, the Free Network Foundation, and WasabiNet are applying the farm shares model to broadband Internet.

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) edges towards a decision that could give Internet service providers permission to charge websites for bandwidth, some communities across the country are rallying together to create a different type of solution.

The high-profile debate between FCC members and broadcasters centers on a proposal allowing broadband companies like Comcast or Verizon to charge websites for special “fast lanes” in the final stage, or “last mile,” of service transmission. In other words, these mega-media conglomerates would be able to determine which sites loader faster or slower based on how much each content provider pays them.

Coupled with the timing of the Time Warner-Comcast merger, critics are concerned the FCC proposal would eliminate net neutrality — a set of rules that enables a free and open internet — altogether, as well as infringe on free press. Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have decried the proposal as “a grave threat to the Internet.”

MORE: Every Kid Needs an Internet Connection to Thrive in School. This District Has a Plan to Make It Happen

But the convoluted issue is even more complex for consumers, who can feel beholden to these Internet companies in order to remain plugged in. But that doesn’t have to be the case, as communities like Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, Kansas City, and St. Louis have illustrated.

Rather than joining the national protest, these three areas have separately launched community-supported broadband initiatives by educating themselves and creating local co-ops to sidestep the traditional Internet service providers, Slate reports. The model is based on community supported agriculture (CSA), or farm shares.

With CSAs, members of the community invest in advance to cover costs of an operation and receive shares of the farm’s profits throughout the crop season. As Slate points out, communities could adopt a similar blueprint in the case of broadband services and leverage purchasing-power to decide who is in control of delivering “last mile” service.

In Brooklyn, the youth nonprofit Red Hook Initiative has created a Digital Stewards program to operate and maintain a community wireless network. The group purchases its bandwidth from high speed Internet service company BKFiber, supporting a local business while training community members to sustain the project.

Kansas City’s Free Network Foundation launched a co-op that owns and operates a community wireless network through purchasing “middle-mile” bulk bandwidth. Meanwhile in St. Louis, WasabiNet has created a wireless mesh network comprised of interconnected wireless routers. Users have different levels of access depending on how much they pay.

Regardless of how the FCC decision pans out, the debate is a chance for communities to redefine the way we are connected by taking charge of their share of the Internet. As Slate smartly points out, Americans should seize this opportunity to create an online sense of their local community instead of relying on big broadband retailers to do the work for them.

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