WirelessFreeNetworks : WhyTo • M.Lenczner
Node.london | Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales License
Why Build A Community Owned and Run Wireless Network?
There are two ways to interpret this question. The question asks for reasons why creating and sustaining a free network (often a Community Wireless Networks or CWN) is important. The question could also be what are our motivations. The answers to the second have a lot to do with sharing a beer, with the joy of having friends who understand your jokes and the typical hacker response of “because it’s there”. The first question is what I'll try to address here.
1) Free as in speech.
This is a biggie. Access to information has always been important and in an “Information Age” it is becoming essential. The concept of network-neutrality is that network operators should provide non-discriminatory transport on their networks between the endpoints of the Internet. Community Networks are important because there is much less of a chance that there will be interference in what content or type of content is sent over them.
None of us want other people to make decisions on our behalf of what information we should have access to. This problem recently occurred in Canada where a telco was discovered to be blocking access to a website that had information on a continuing strike by its employees. The scary thing is that we depend upon not having a monopoly of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) infrastructure to even be able to discover that information blackouts or content discrimination are occurring.
2) Free as in beer (and real as in beer).
It doesn't seem like a deep and weighty reason, but the plain truth is that sometimes we can do it cheaper, faster, better than the telcos. There are many instances of market failure in telecom. It might be that no company is offering wireless internet for a reasonable rate at your favorite coffeeshops. Or it might be that no ISP is building a business model that includes free metropolitan traffic for its users. By offering that service – whether it's a mesh node, a hotspot or a crazy optical datalink that you cooked up – you are making an impact on people's lives in your community. Whether that network or service is completely free of cost at the point of access or not, the importance lives in the act of bringing something real and useful to your community.
3) Raising Awareness
The concept of a free network is important. In the same way that only seeing one map prevents alternative or critical thinking about a place, only having one way of thinking about local ICT infrastructure makes it difficult for people to imagine any another kind of network. It's important for people (both regular and geek) to be made aware that there are always other ways of doing things – including in telecommunications. The default sales package from the local telco/cableco *isn't* the only imaginable way that people could connect. Even if your local mesh network has only 25 users, it has a larger impact on your community’s way of thinking about telecom infrastructure. Things like fixed IP addresses enabling user hosting of servers, allowing access to all ports, and symmetrical upload/download speeds are political points worthy of interest and discussion. Community Wireless Networks are often high profile and they raise these questions.
4) Alternative design values for networks.
Having alternative visions for networks is not only about network-neutrality or pico-peering. It can also be about promoting art and culture or encouraging people to get to know their neighbor www.neighbornode.net/. Infrastructure is *always* designed with values and a set of priorities – from roads to cell-networks. And those design choices shape us and our interactions through our daily use of those infrastructures. Community networks are opportunities to have you or your group’s priorities reflected in the infrastructure that your community uses.
5) Think Globally, Act Locally
This last reason is the one that keeps me involved in CWNs on those rare occasions when there isn’t time for the friendships and I don’t really feel like beer.
Unlike many of the other worthwhile and important Free/Open projects (like F/LOSS, copyright, community mapping, civic information, free/open hardware) for Community Wireless Networks to happen, people have to get together. Physically. As in getting out from behind our desks, driving or taking the bus to a meeting place, and introducing ourselves to new people. Once you meet these people you have to find some way to work together over long periods of time with little resources and different styles and motivations. You have to figure out how to get permission from city hall to attach that antenna. You have to agree on stuff like Acceptable Use Policies, the legal status of your organization, bookkeeping and press releases. It is not easy. It is rewarding. But the point here isn’t that it’s ultimately enjoyable. The point is that by being involved in CWNs we are taking the philosophy, goals and dreams of these online projects, and finding ways to bring them to life in physical form in our local communities. We are forced to talk to neighbors, engage with building owners and find ways to split the bill at the end of the meeting. These are important lessons for the Free/Open/internet community. If we ever want to have the world reflect some of the aspirations of this larger movement, we will have to be able to work together in local groups in our communities. CWNs (or free networks) are a part of larger online movement simultaneously learning and teaching how to do just that.