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Community
Wireless Project

The Project

Values

We believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right and that independent, community-owned and -operated wireless is a sustainable and scaleable means of digital inclusion.

We support net neutrality principles and believe that the Internet should be provided free of throttling, zero-rating, and the tracking and monetization of user behavior.

We believe that people matter more than profit and that the principles of cooperation and mutual aid can grow a fundamentally different kind of digital network.

Finally, we believe in starting small, learning from our mistakes, and inviting the input and perspectives of teachers, organizers, users, and technologists alike in building this network.

Goals

We are here to present an alternative model of Internet access, a network based in community input and education. We aim to transform how cities think about the Internet as a utility by involving our users in the construction of the network. The diversity of users we are targeting speaks to the array of digital inclusion needs we have identified: from students to business owners, from medical providers to people working from home.

We plan for this project to be a vehicle of workforce development by training technicians and outreach coordinators. And we see the network itself as a means of connecting existing community organizations throughout the city. Our goal is to empower the people who have been most exposed to technology’s harms through surveillance and algorithmic bias with critical digital literacies.

This project is a product of the pandemic, but our vision extends beyond the current crisis. We seek a long term, sustainable, and affordable Internet for all in Philadelphia, rather than stopgap measures amid this emergency.

Meanwhile, the City of Philadelphia has announced a meaningful plan to connect 35,000 low-income families to broadband Internet at the start of the 2020-21 school year through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. We see our project filling in the gaps of this citywide plan, both by reaching those students who can’t be served by Comcast and by providing the countless non-students throughout the city who still need Internet access.

The Process

The PCWP infrastructure will have three distinct layers that we liken to a tree with a trunk, branches, and leaves. Here’s how it works.

Trunk

The trunk layer consists of anchor antennas that are donated and installed by our partner, PhillyWisper. Each anchor antenna receives a line-of-sight connection from one of the company’s towers, and propagates that signal within a roughly one-mile radius. The PW team has already installed a public access point in Norris Square Park that went live on June 8. We are identifying further installation sites at buildings owned by community organizations, located in neighborhoods where 53% of residents have no broadband access.

installed Norris Sq Park

sites identified HACE

sites identified The Free Library

in conversation Village of the Arts and Humanities

in conversation Temple University

Branches

Around three repeater nodes can be installed around the anchor antenna to boost the “trunk’s” signal. These repeater nodes will be placed as needed, according to any natural interference present at a site, including large buildings and trees. Because each installation will be unique depending on the landscape, we will build this network iteratively. Each installation will teach us more about the network. All that remains is the next infrastructure layer in order to bring that connection into people’s homes.

Leaves

The “leaves” of the PCWP consist of mesh kits donated to community members. Families and individuals living in the vicinity of the anchor antennas will apply to receive free home installation kits, purchased by the PCWP. The kits consist of an indoor mesh antenna, router, and ethernet cables. This phase of the project will involve community outreach and coordination. The PCWP will draw on educational materials, tutorials, and other resources that have been developed for similar hardware by community technology groups like Open Technology Institute, Detroit Community Technology Project, and Community Tech NY.

PCWP members have tested these hardware kits in their own homes and have been able to provide connections to several neighbors from one kit. Colleagues in Baltimore at Project WAVES and the Digital Harbor Foundation report that each mesh antenna in the home can provide reliable Internet access to at least the two neighboring row homes on each side of the initial house.

Each kit costs roughly $300 and will connect three homes to the Internet at 25 MB/s speeds for as long as the hardware is plugged in.

Outreach + Engagement

In sharing these hardware kits and training materials with the community, we will partner with several digital literacy organizations in the city. We are imagining a nested structure for our outreach and engagement, in which each group fans out and trains a slightly larger group, amplifying their expertise.

What We Need

We are currently seeking community organizations and building owners in the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods who are willing to host network antennas on their rooftops, and to conduct community outreach about this free network connection.

We seek technologists with experience in network engineering to help install and maintain the network connections.

And we need funding to purchase more hardware that will be donated to community members. Roughly $300 can connect three families to high-speed Internet forever, with no monthly bills.

The Future

Eventually, we would like to foster a number of community-based arts partnerships that encourage people to envision a new internet. What kind of content and what forms of communication do we most desire in Philadelphia?

We are also planning research projects with neighboring Penn, Temple, and Princeton Universities on digital equity and Internet accessibility.