The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Grassroots on the Cutting Edge

Wireless Politics May Determine Future of Digital Democracy

Part One of a Two-Part Series

by Michelle Chen

Control over an emerging communications technology is pitting corporations against communities, private profit against public access to information. Michelle Chen looks at trends on the wireless horizon.

Dec. 29, 2004 – A teenage public housing resident searches the web for scholarship opportunities while her mother looks up tips on starting a small business. A public art space lets visitors download a multimedia exhibition onto their laptops, which are simultaneously linked to a dozen other galleries around the city. A local Independent Media Center breaks news before the major network affiliates by sending a report instantly to thousands of home computers sharing a wireless network.

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You may not be able to see into the future of digital democracy, but you may already be breathing it; the new frontier, say activists and technophiles, is on the air. Broadband access and its wireless digital "ether" are giving rise to a new technological geography that defies spatial boundaries and historical precedent.

Wireless is not a traditional technology, but in fact a concept defined by the absence of traditional technology. The laptop’s answer to the cellular phone, wireless internet connects computers equipped with "WiFi" devices through the electromagnetic spectrum, commonly known as the public airwaves, untethering users from the cables and plugs that characterize older computer networks.

What makes wireless networks so attractive is their openness, which blasts conventional concepts of internet access, mobility and cost. Combined with high-speed internet or broadband, WiFi spans uncharted territory in networking, enabling people to send and receive information, often free of charge, from anywhere within range of a WiFi base connection -- a coffeeshop, park, a house or street corner.

You may not be able to see into the future of digital democracy, but you may already be breathing it.

On the ground, countless nonprofit organizations, government agencies and corporations large and small are racing to establish networks using wireless technology. In the realm of policy, meanwhile, advocates are pushing to expand the unlicensed electromagnetic spectrum for community use. In both arenas, groups advocating for free public networks face resistance from corporate players that have long dominated the nation’s telecommunications landscape.

WiFi’s visionaries believe the technology is more than an extension of the internet; it is a whole new level of information exchange. Sascha Meinrath, president of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN), an Illinois-based urban networking project, surmised: "The internet wired geographical locations. Wireless connects individuals, and it’s a very different phenomenon." Meinrath said he sees a "battle brewing" between the major telephone and cable companies on one hand and a rising generation of digital progressives who champion community-based networks.

Service providers who dominated the market in the days of telephone internet connections have reason to worry about the virtually limitless networking capabilities of WiFi, because a single access point or "node" can support a houseful of simultaneous users. Jonah Brucker-Cohen, a programming researcher with the Disruptive Design Team of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, notes that under the wireless regime, corporations "don’t make as much profit anymore. Not every person using it has to have an account with them."

WiFi’s visionaries believe the technology is more than an extension of the internet; it is a whole new level of information exchange.

The difference in revenue is like the difference between a hundred people sharing a public swimming pool and a hundred individuals each buying their own backyard pools.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the advocacy group the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), predicts that the impending showdown between corporations and communities over new access technologies will determine whether the internet will become merely an "interactive commercial and advertising and movie and music machine" or the "central nervous system of our democracy."

Open Spectrum, No Limits

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spurred the growth of wireless broadband in a few spasms of apparent generosity, when it liberated huge swaths of underused spectrum on the broadcast airwaves. By designating several bandwidths for open public use, the FCC gave start-up capital to thousands of wireless service providers and community-based networks, dramatically expanding the matrix of gadgetry, software, and content known as the "digital communications platform."

These bandwidths were previously considered "junk bands," occupied by the signals of household gadgets like garage door remote controls and cordless phones. But they were rediscovered in the 1990s through a radio technology protocol known in the industry as IEEE 802.11, or Wireless Fidelity, which turned junk spectrum into a precious medium for high-speed data transfers via wireless base connections.

For all its promise, consumer and community advocates warn, unlicensed spectrum is not a level playing field.

Ben Serebin, director of NYC Wireless, a group that brings together technophiles and the nonprofit world to develop wireless solutions for New York City, said the government made an unprecedented "economic and social difference" by deregulating part of the spectrum: "This is the opposite of capitalism -- literally, just giving away spectrum that they could sell."

Policy analysts and think tanks like the New American Foundation say that opening the spectrum to the public generates fresh markets and innovations, which in the long run will actually be much more lucrative for society than the conservative alternative: auctioning bandwidths to corporate bidders at astronomical prices.

With increasingly intelligent technology, more and more users are employing unlicensed airwaves to make new connections to the internet and to one another. Wireless networks have mushroomed in cities and the suburbs, in pubs and the projects, rapidly expanding access to the internet. The FCC reported that from 2001 to 2003, the number of high-speed internet subscriptions tripled from 5.9 million to 20.3 million lines. Worldwide wireless equipment sales reached $2.5 billion in 2003 and are expected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2007. According to the WiFi information service, more than 21,000 wireless networks or "hotspots" now dot the United States.

As the connections become faster and the networks more elaborate, both the public and private sectors have scrambled to stake out space on the digital horizon -- and it’s too early to tell who will come out ahead.

The Battle for the Digital Frontier

The concept of a so-called "spectrum commons" is not as simple as getting something for nothing. Within a few years, WiFi has engendered a new industry, incurred the wrath of telecommunications moguls, and opened a Pandora’s Box of political fights. Proponents of open access are rapidly learning that even a nominally "public" resource can be garrisoned by big business, inflexible regulations, and ingrained social inequalities.

The corporate stronghold has not dimmed hopes for non-commercial networks, which can thrive on minimal equipment and a little creativity.

For all its promise, consumer and community advocates warn, unlicensed spectrum is not a level playing field. Major corporations have the capital and political connections to quash grassroots, non-commercial wireless initiatives that offer more affordable access. In response, WiFi activists strive to expand local nonprofit networks and simultaneously protect them from corporate interference through political advocacy and community solidarity.

Telecommunications giants have wielded a combination of political and market influences to shape local access policies. In November, Verizon effectively extinguished the potential for independent municipal networks in Pennsylvania when it challenged the city’s plan to set up a low-cost local broadband service, claiming that the government had an "unfair" advantage over commercial service providers. Backed by the corporate lobby, Governor Ed Rendell signed a bill giving incumbent telecom companies automatic priority as citywide network service providers. Pennsylvania thus joined over a dozen states in passing laws that limit the ability of local government to deploy municipal telecommunications networks in service of their constituents.

Activists argue that recent efforts by cable companies to gain so-called "bottleneck control" -- the ability to monopolize and act as a gatekeeper to the broader internet -- pose an additional threat to the emerging communications renaissance.

The CDD and other media democracy organizations are currently battling the cable industry lobby over a federal court ruling in the Brand X v. FCC case, which established that cable companies could not restrict customers from choosing independent internet service providers (ISPs). On December 3, the Supreme Court agreed to reopen the case in response to a petition by the FCC supported by cable corporations, and a new ruling is expected by the middle of 2005.

According to CDD’s Chester: "You now have an emerging duopoly in terms of broadband access in the United States with cable and the big phone companies. They do not believe in any kind of regulatory safeguards. They don’t believe that communities should have any kind of authority over these systems as well."

Chester fears that total control over connectivity would allow cable companies to dominate the whole broadband communications structure, thereby undercutting community-based open networking initiatives. If the government gives in to corporate interests, he said, "I think you’ll see the internet becoming a much more commercialized medium."

Speaking at the New American Foundation last year, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has denounced his own agency’s corporate-friendly policies, cautioned, "those with bottleneck control will be able to discriminate against both users and content providers that they don’t have commercial relationships with, don't share the same politics with, or just don’t want to offer access to for any reason at all."

Still, the corporate stronghold has not dimmed hopes for non-commercial networks, which can thrive on minimal equipment and a little creativity. A local networking project might take the form of a WiFi cooperative in rural town of 3,000 -- or a downtown wireless system bringing free internet to the aisle of a vintage bookstore and the bar of a jazz club.

Meinrath’s project, CUWiN, is preparing to launch a network throughout Champaign-Urbana offering everything from independent website hosting to instant local news. From his perspective, this merger of guerilla technology and community advocacy -- a geek radicalism of sorts -- has grown exponentially in recent years because "thousands of people have realized … we can actually do better, with off-the-shelf equipment and our own know-how, than our internet service provider [can]."

For activists, the success so far of grassroots community networks, despite industry monopolies and meager funds, may prove that in the frenetic process of revamping the telecommunications infrastructure, the scrappy underdog will inevitably outstrip the old guard.

Part Two: Activists Bring the Digital Frontier to New Communities

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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