One pillar holding up the socially distanced city is the Internet. But under the strain of migrating so much of our work, education, and leisure online, telecommunications networks could use a failsafe; and in the best of times, reliable internet is hardly accessible to all. For the first installment of our new audio Dispatch series, we catch up with Greta Byrum of Community Tech NY as she sets up a local internet hotspot for her building. Against a persistent “digital divide,” Byrum talks about the importance of grassroots digital networks in keeping people connected during disasters — and how they might point the way forward to a more equitable and community-driven technological future.
You can get more information about building your own neighborhood network here.
Greta Byrum: Twenty-five to thirty percent of US households still don’t have broadband at home, and that’s primarily low-income urban households that can’t afford it because they need to buy groceries and pay rent. And then rural households where there’s no access, no bandwidth, no back haul to connect to. It’s been really interesting to see now editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post and everybody saying, “Oh my gosh there’s still a homework gap, there’s still people who aren’t online.” And it’s like, yeah — shit’s right, yes.
Both an event like Sandy and an event like this current pandemic really expose the structural inequities that are there all the time.
My name is Greta Byrum, and I’m the director of a group called Community Tech New York. We reimagine tech in order to build community. I started a little over a decade ago. I was interested in the way that local radio works in a crisis. At the time I was studying urban planning, and I got really interested in the ways that centralized communication systems like corporate radio are failing us in emergencies, and how places that have local communication infrastructure also seem to have strong community, and fare better in disasters.
What we see in this pandemic is really similar to what we see in other crises. The nature of the emergency may be different, but we see the same kinds of things. For a long time, we’ve been building these systems that were really designed for floods, and they were designed around having local hubs. People would come together in a community and do the planning, and you would place the communication infrastructure in the places where these hubs would be, where people would come together anyway. And so at first we were like, “Oh, we’ve designed for the wrong thing.” But then we realized, actually, no: Everything we’ve been doing is absolutely relevant to this. People still need access, they still need to be trusted. You still need to find a way to build communication systems that try to address the historical inequity that has been in these places.
The PNK is a portable network kit, and basically, it’s a collection of hardware and software like any other tech tool. It’s essentially a DIY hot spot. One really relevant thing about our Portable Network Kits is that they are able to both distribute a broadband connection — so they can help you share internet with your neighbors, with folks around you — and they also have a local server, so even if you lose connection to the global internet, you can still get on local services, which are document sharing and file sharing. There’s a chat service. So even if the internet breaks, like it did in Sandy in a lot of places in New York City, the kit will be able to still help you organise your neighbors.
I built a kit that is sharing internet in my building. It’s sharing internet and local services. I think most of the folks in my immediate vicinity have internet, but what we wanted to do is we wanted to make it easy for folks to build these things in their own neighborhoods. So we wanted to make sure that the documentation is easy to follow. We also wanted to test out what it’s like to teach somebody how to do this over the internet, because a lot of what we do is really based in getting together in person. In general, we like to hold workshops with folks and make a meal and eat it and hang out and get to know people personally, so my colleagues wanted to get on a video chat and see what it’s like; if you can really walk somebody through installing the software and connecting everything and making sure the network’s running and setting up a password. We wanted to make sure that was all working. So that’s why I built one here at home, and now we have our documentation out to a number of folks who have volunteered to try building it themselves, and we’re going to put everything up on our website and put it out there in the world and hopefully people can build their own and this thing will spread organically. The idea is that the folks who are building it now and learning how to do it will be able to get on video chats with others and help walk them through it.
My colleague, Raoul, likes to talk about doing things con cariño. That’s what his mother always talked to him about: Which is that you do things with affection, and the affection and love that you put into working with people, it becomes what goes out into the world with the work. We kind of doubted at first, like, “Can we still do what we do con cariño, over the internet?” So much of our love for the work has to do with being with people and enjoying people and enjoying the social interaction. We just found a way to get on a video chat and enjoy a person — sort of shoot the breeze and talk about silly stuff while you’re waiting for something to download or upload or something to configure. That’s really been the trick: how do we do this, con cariño, over the internet, in such a way that people can carry it forward and help others. With the big fight over net neutrality, there’s this idea that, “Well, big telecom is just too big and we can’t push back. They’re winning the fight and we just basically have to ask them nicely to serve everybody.” Which has never worked, and I don't know why anyone thought it would work now. We are seeing the industry. They’ve said they won’t cut people off for sixty days if they don’t pay their bills. We’ve seen in some cases that the industry is waiving data caps or eliminating data caps for this special period, which is absurd also, because they’re arbitrary and it makes no difference whatsoever to their networks whether or not the data caps are there. There’s no reason to ever have them.
I should say also that the FCC, the Federal Communication Commission, has lifted some restrictions on Lifeline, which is a subsidy program that helps people get online. And then they’ve also listed restrictions on E-Rate subsidies. This is a subsidy that gives low-cost broadband to schools and libraries. And up until now, schools and libraries have had to only distribute access within their physical locations. A library or a school is not allowed to share internet or wifi out into their community. But that restriction is lifted for the pandemic. One thing we could see is libraries and schools starting to share their connections out into their neighborhoods. That’s the kind of thing we would hope to connect to with our DIY hotspots.
We’re seeing groups like the Detroit Community Technology Project. They already have neighborhood internet through the Equitable Internet Initiative and now they’re building resilient hotspots to fill in, where they’re offering coverage in Detroit. Our partners in Kingston, New York, Radio Kingston, customized one of our Portable Network Kits and added a bunch of stuff to it. Made it more rugged, added some more capacity for the local server and the local router, and now that kit is providing internet and also local services for a COVID testing center in Kingston. And the other thing we’re seeing a lot of is school districts starting to do things like offer hotspots that are broadcasting out of school buses, so people can drive up and use the internet in a parking lot, accessing the internet from a school bus.
I think we’re just seeing a lot of folks coming up with innovative ideas, and it’s kind of a special period, in that restrictions have been lifted. They haven’t really been clamping down on this kind of thing from government and industry, so I think we’ll see a lot of interesting stuff crop up. And I hope we can see it last past this, because there’s no reason that so many people should be disconnected, should not have access to a human right. Communication is a fundamental human right. Obviously we need it, and this pandemic is making that clear for everybody. I think if we see anything from this, it’s that we need to support these kinds of amazing solutions that are bubbling up in communities.