How Community-Owned Wi-Fi are Great Equalizers for Poor Neighborhoods

Bridging the digital divide is necessary for people to compete on a level playing field.

Sep 29, 2019


How Community-Owned Wi-Fi are Great Equalizers for Poor Neighborhoods | Bridging the digital divide is necessary for people to compete on a level playing field.

The internet has changed the world, the way we do business, get an education, access heath information, order a pizza, and even contact our families or friends. Before the advent of the internet, people relied on printed materials— and libraries –, television, or radio to find out information.

Today, we are providing internet to third world countries so that they can compete in the globalization of business and information.

But what about communities where people cannot afford internet service via a cable line or DSL, or even a computer? How do they find jobs, do homework, or find out urgent information in emergencies? This digital divide where the poor have no internet access is a significant handicap.

Some poor neighborhoods have set up wireless community networks by setting up mesh networks (a wireless network usually linked by radio nodes or hotspots) that allow people to connect to the internet via a smartphone or a laptop. These grassroot networks have been great equalizers in giving their communities access to services that they lacked before.

The first community network was formed in 1990 in Manchester, UK to serve 30 apartments in the Bentley House estate to share one paid subscription from British Telecom. By 2003, community wireless networks had spread to poor neighborhoods in cities in Europe, across the pond to the US, and all the way to Australia.

One community is Red Hook in Brooklyn – one of the boroughs of New York City – that set up its own mesh network in 2012. It was established by the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit that was set up to empower youth in the area to be inspired, resilient, and healthy. The nonprofits programs include youth development, the largest urban farm in Brooklyn, and the Red Hook Wi-Fi mesh.

It was fortunate that the mesh was established before the superstorm Hurricane Sandy roared into the community on October 22, 2012. This gave the waterfront neighborhood, that is prone to flooding, a way to stay connected.

Red Hook was devastated by flooding and in the aftermath, there was no electrical power, no cell service, and no internet for people other than the mesh according to Nation Swell.

“I remember that the water started lapping on the windows of the first floor of the building, and that’s about five feet off the ground,” Dabriah Alston a public housing resident in Red Hook told Nation Swell .

When the lights went out in Red Hook, they stayed out for 13 days. It took over a month for the community to start to get back on its feet. What helped was the wireless mesh that let people communicate with each other.

“When the [mesh was installed] we didn’t know it was something we would need, something that would become pivotal during the recovery,” Alston said. "Even FEMA was using that Wi-Fi as well. It made it easier to find people who could volunteer, and it supported [Red Hook’s] recovery.”

“That’s our hope, that the network is used as a source of communication throughout the neighborhood,” Robert Smith, a digital steward in Red Hook, told the New York Times after the hurricane. “We want to have both, that second layer, so if the Internet goes down we can still connect with each other through the mesh.”

The only charges for accessing the internet via the mesh, according to Nation Swell is a roof-top router that costs between $60 to $100 and the upkeep which is handled by volunteers. Sometimes mesh organizers ask for small monthly donations to help defray the costs but this is much cheaper than any commercial internet companies in NYC.

According to a New York City report about internet inequality 25 percent of New Yorkers do not have broadband internet access, programs like Red Hook's help bridge the digital divide. Other mesh providers include NYMesh that operates BY nodes in low income neighborhoods mostly in Manhattan with a speed of 100 megabytes.

Hurricane Sandy proved that community-owned wireless can keep people informed and safe in times of emergencies. They can also help residents of poor communities to compete on a level playing field for jobs, education, and business opportunities.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.