Cell, cable, and internet service providers control fundamental infrastructures for communication and survival. Yet their monopolistic practices, predatory pricing, and unreliable service bely the promises of ever faster, ubiquitous networks. Digital redlining and failure in climate emergencies have left many communities underserved. Over the last decade, communities seeking more resilient and responsive infrastructures that are more closely aligned with their commitment to common resources and mutual aid have chosen to build their own networks. Greta Byrum tells the story of their efforts — from Brooklyn to Detroit, Tennessee, and the Hudson Valley — and the lessons learned on the way to a People’s Internet. The process has not been seamless: Their builders must navigate bureaucracy and neighborly tensions, and the connectivity these networks ultimately provide isn’t of the lightning-speed frictionless sort promised by the major commercial providers. Yet local networks — owned, operated, and governed by those who use them — don’t simply link devices together into a mesh; they also link people together into a community of stewardship and self-governance. – SM
We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of critical mass. It’s always about critical connections.
– Grace Lee Boggs
Why do communication systems matter in a disaster?
When people can communicate in an emergency, they have a chance to cooperate and survive. If parents know their children are safe, they don’t swarm into the streets trying to reach them; if neighbors know how to find resources, there is less hoarding, fear, and violence. According to a recent machine learning study from George Mason University simulating the aftermath of a nuclear blast in Manhattan, less panic leads to more cooperation and better survival rates. But we didn’t need artificial intelligence to tell us this. Anyone who has been through an emergency knows.
In Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, the tiny, low-power FM radio station WQRZ-LP became a local lifeline after Hurricane Katrina. Its operator, civic-minded radio enthusiast Brice Phillips, climbed a tower in gale-force winds to repair his FM antenna, and powered his transmitter with a car battery. When all other broadcast and telecommunications services failed in the area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local authorities co-located with Phillips and his transmitter for weeks, broadcasting public health and assistance information — vetted for the community by Phillips as a trusted liaison.
In Immokalee, Florida, the local, low-power FM station Radio Conciencia broadcast emergency evacuation notifications in indigenous languages as Hurricane Wilma bore down. The broadcasts, also from a trusted and known source, saved lives by reaching migrant workers sleeping in trailers among the fields.
But in New York City after Sandy, the loss of power and communications infrastructure in many neighborhoods confused the response effort, and many of the hardest-hit areas, like Sheepshead Bay and Far Rockaway, were isolated and did not receive assistance for weeks. In the absence of outside aid, locally organized efforts saved lives.
While almost all internet and telecommunications systems in the area failed, a scrappy, neighborhood wireless mesh network built by local community organizers and youth trainees somehow survived the hurricane. Using its own WiFi infrastructure, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a trusted community center, was able to coordinate volunteer response for residents isolated in housing towers without heat or working elevators, and to tell the story of what was happening in the neighborhood to the outside world.
Local communications infrastructure for resilience and preparedness suddenly had a high-tech proof of concept. City and federal officials visited to study the potential of local WiFi for emergencies. And Red Hook WiFi started to grow. It was a potent demonstration of why local communication capacity matters in an emergency, and businesses and organizations lined up to become part of that lifeline: their neighborhood nervous system.
Lightweight, mobile, and distributed, mesh networks are a dream technology carrying the promise of decentralized networks and the open-source ethos of the commons. True believers see mesh as a way to resist autocratic control of communications systems, or as a tool of resilience and mutual aid. Instead of requiring a centralized hub to direct network traffic, a mesh operating system automatically searches for the best path for data to travel. Devices (even computers or phones) can become “nodes” or connecting points that enable data to hop from place to place until it reaches its destination. If a node fails or breaks, the network automatically routes around it through other nodes.
Back in the early 2010s, a group of software developers and tech policy nerds (including the author) at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) inspired media and tech activists with the idea of a portable mesh networking kit — an “Internet in a Suitcase.” The proposed kit ran on OTI’s beta open-source mesh firmware, Commotion, intended to enable anyone to build a local area network and connect it to the internet. OTI envisioned a ground-up communications system that could survive anything from an autocrat cutting the country off from the global internet to a natural disaster.
A group of artists, media organizers, and technologists in Detroit called Allied Media Projects (AMP) was the first to run with Commotion. At the time, well below half of Detroit’s residents had broadband at home. A mesh networking platform that was mobile, inexpensive, adaptable, and scalable felt like one potential solution to AMP and its advisors in a newly formed collection of local organizations using technology to address a range of issues, from housing to welfare rights to environmental justice: the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC).
But despite the elegance of mesh’s promise, and its many potential social uses, in practice these networks can be tricky to implement, requiring patience and skill to get various devices and operating systems to talk to each other. Transferring the necessary knowledge to build and maintain mesh networks is also challenging. The codebase requires constant care and tending to, and the buildout requires radio engineering and construction skills. Most importantly, community mesh requires fostering relationships of trust and cooperation among neighbors, who must work together to make decisions about network design, services, access protocols, security, and long-term sustainability.
The most holistic solutions come from the places with the least resources.
– Diana Nucera
To bring mesh networking skills to Detroit, AMP’s Detroit Future Media (DFM) program, led by Diana Nucera, created a “Digital Stewardship” training curriculum in partnership with OTI. Nucera built the curriculum using a popular education method grounded in the history of the Civil Rights-era Citizenship Schools and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She created this people-guided approach to bring tech education to communities that have been harmed and oppressed by technology, such as those in Detroit, where factory automation has killed so many vital middle-class jobs. The 16-week Digital Stewardship curriculum focused on the basics of how to organize, plan, build, and maintain wireless mesh networks in Detroit’s under-connected neighborhoods.
The first cohort of Digital Stewards were neighborhood leaders who applied for the program by articulating a positive vision for the impact of the neighborhood networks they wanted to build. By developing relationships among local leaders — including churches with strong social networks and tall steeples to host network nodes — Digital Stewards trainee organizers were able to undergird the mesh platform with social infrastructure tied directly to the life of the community. As mesh networks in Detroit continued to grow and draw attention, other communities started reaching out to AMP and DFM (which later became the Detroit Community Technology Project) for information on how to build their own networks. One interested community organization was the Red Hook Initiative, where Tony Schloss led a youth development program. Brooklyn would become the second locale to build a Digital Stewardship program.
Red Hook is cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by a highway and surrounded by water on three sides. It has poor transportation options by New York City standards, and has suffered from isolation and disinvestment. Yet, like Detroit, Red Hook also has a strong local organizing culture, with a community garden, a neighborhood justice center, and RHI as its social hub. With help from community technologist Alyx Baldwin along with Nucera and OTI, RHI’s Digital Stewards built a small mesh network in 2012. Like the Detroit networks, Red Hook WiFi mirrored and grew the offline social networks already doing care work in the community. In the background was the possibility that a flood or storm surge could require the use of the neighborhood mesh as a disaster response tool. Could the existence of the network — before and during a flood — make a difference for survival and resilience?
Recent research shows that most broadband infrastructure, especially in coastal cities, is at critical risk from rising seas and more frequent flooding. Data centers, internet exchange points, trenched fiber optic cables, and especially aging coaxial cable infrastructure and copper phone wires are all vulnerable to floods and storm surges. Yet instead of retrofitting backbone infrastructure — the arteries of the internet — the vast majority of current telecom investment is directed towards designing and building 5G, the next generation of mobile service. And what will 5G mobile networks bring us? In the race to create a return on investment in communications, industry leans towards high-yield activity: hyper-connectivity, sensor networks monitoring human behavior and environmental indicators, and urban infrastructure built for maximum efficiency and operational sustainability. Unfortunately, in 2019, often these systems contain levers for social control: surveillance, predictive modeling, and other dystopian ends. (See, for example: Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology; Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; Sarah T. Roberts’ Behind the Screen; Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression; Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality; Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction.)
Moreover, 5G relies on underlying internet infrastructures. Virtually all communications data go through trunk lines and data centers at some point in their journey. And if an area does not have high-capacity fiber trunk lines, there is no way to build 5G there. As a question of equity, the race to invest in 5G where industry sees potential financial returns — wealthy suburbs and dense urban areas — hinders the ability to invest in resilient and future-proofed infrastructure for all, and deepens digital redlining. And as a question of preparing our communications systems for sea level rise and climate disasters, 5G is the Fyre Festival of infrastructure: all hype and no plumbing.
In 2014, OTI discovered an opportunity to bring what worked in Red Hook — a community network dedicated to resilience and mutual aid — to more underserved and flood-prone neighborhoods with the help of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation. We proposed bringing the Detroit and Red Hook model of Digital Stewardship to trusted community organizations who had been there when things got bad, and to retain the integrity of community leadership by seeding resources and building skills with our local partners.
Led by former OTI staff — joined by urban planners, technologists, and educators — the Resilient Communities program at New America brought curriculum, equipment, and support to five neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy in partnership with key organizations that had held their respective neighborhood together after the crisis: in Gowanus, the Fifth Avenue Committee; in Far Rockaway, the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation; in Hunts Point, the Point CDC; in East Harlem, Silicon Harlem; and in Sheepshead Bay, the Kings Bay Y. With the goal of building both technical and human capacity for mutual aid, the Resilient Communities project seeded resources, curriculum and technical support, and provided equipment and training for Digital Stewardship trainers.
But working in multiple neighborhoods throughout the city, each with its own unique culture and methods, proved challenging. Even more challenging was working with the restrictions introduced by federal and city codes and regulations, many at odds with the needs of managing a complex hybrid community organizing and technical engineering project. Delays and bureaucratic hoop-jumping created the need for constant creative adaptation. If we could not install on rooftops that did not have evidence of impact from Sandy (along with qualifying tax paperwork) we had to implement engineering workarounds to make the infrastructure functional.
In the end, Resilient Communities found a model of community service instead of customer service, a slower process of mutual accountability. Together with our local partners, we brought back the internet-in-a-suitcase. This time, however, it was a self-enclosed, waterproof, battery-powered, solar-enabled kit with its own local server that can expand and distribute a WiFi connection. The Portable Network Kit (PNK) became infill in parts of the networks where restrictions would not let us build, and offered communities the ability to move communications resources wherever disaster hits and communications fail. As of June 2019, each of the five Resilient Communities partner neighborhoods has a network “backbone” carrying a reliable, redundant internet signal into the area, plus a collection of mesh-able PNK that can extend and grow the networks as needed.
PNK — an open-source collection of hardware, software, and adaptive, demystified network know-how — are also in use by communities in Puerto Rico, Dominica, Detroit, rural Tennessee, and are coming soon to the Hudson Valley. PNK are not super-fast, high-bandwidth, frictionless 5G tech. They are DIY tools that require learning, time, and patience to put in place. But they are owned, operated, and governed by their communities, and offer an opportunity: When we build, grow and learn together, the obstacles we will inevitably face in the future can be addressed together.
In Detroit and New York, visions of the future honed by slow-moving economic collapse and sudden, calamitous weather events forced us to ask: What happens when we build a communications system from the ground up? We not only learned that it takes a long time to do it right — or that building power is more important than building tech — but that now is a critical moment to challenge the entrenched power of the telecom incumbents through the civil action of building our communities. Internet and mobile monopolies operate with a logic of centralizing power and resources while offloading accountability and risk, deepening inequities and vulnerabilities. The things that end up broken are the bonds that held our communities together in the first place.
Building network infrastructure is complicated and time-consuming work, largely because it involves bringing human dynamics into engineering systems. But the time and energy required is needed to build those critical connections, to ensure that neighbors know each other, and that we are engaged in the struggle for co-liberation and collective self-governance.
The Detroit Community Technology Project’s (DCTP) Equitable Internet Initiative community networks are growing and becoming more robust and sustainable, with new neighborhoods joining the effort. DCTP is also leading a battle to create public accountability and policy to govern the introduction of surveillant facial recognition in the city. Meanwhile, in the coal mining community of Clear Fork, Tennessee (in partnership with the Southern Connected Communities Project) and in the Hudson Valley’s just transition testing ground of Kingston, New York, DCTP’s new sister project Community Tech NY (CTNY) is testing new models for rural and arts-driven networks using PNK and mesh tools.
This is one example of how a vision of the People’s Internet, built and nurtured by community leaders and organizers, has created a legacy of grassroots power to challenge the unchecked dissemination of new, ruthlessly efficient technologies of surveillance and social control. This vision asks us to choose what future we want: one in which things break and are sometimes slow, in which we come together as neighbors and allies to fix and maintain and govern; or one in which speed and efficiency trump all other values.
We invite you to build and struggle with us as we learn to adapt for distributed scale.
Community Tech NY and the Detroit Community Technology Project have recently come together as regional “sister” organizations to form the Community Technology Collective, sponsored by Allied Media Projects. To learn more about the precedent community technology principles guiding the Collective, click here.
To hear more from Greta Byrum about what a “distributed future” might look like, click here.