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Community Wireless Networks Could Have "Transformative" Impact, Experts Say
The right to receive and impart information is a universal human right that can be enhanced and protected by providing access to wireless communication for all, experts told a recent meeting at AAAS.
As the technology has matured, there has been increasing interest in providing broadband access to the Internet through wireless connections that allow people to log on and communicate from their local coffee shop or public square. The router systems do not require expensive underground cables and can be installed atop light poles and other public structures.
But at the International Summit for Community Wireless Networks, hosted by AAAS from 28-30 May, specialists noted that providing low-cost, universal access to wireless networks has not been easy, even in some tech-savvy locales.
San Francisco and Philadelphia have had well-publicized difficulties trying to establish public-private partnerships to provide city-wide wireless access. The municipalities gave private companies the right to install wireless nodes in public places and to charge residents for access. But the systems proved costly and faltered over issues such as availability, data speed and privacy controls. Critics say the cities, which did not own the systems, had insufficient public investment to ensure success.
Sascha Meinrath, an expert on community wireless networks at the New America Foundation and director of the wireless summit, said at the wireless summit that the core interest of a community wireless network must be the public good rather than corporate profit. For that model to be successful, he says, cities or community organizations must invest money in the wireless infrastructure and provide services in a neutral fashion to all residents within the network's coverage area.
The wireless summit featured presentations on the different models for deploying wireless networks, the technology available, and the uses of such networks in the promotion of human rights and community cohesion. The summit was co-sponsored by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), the New America Foundation, the CUWiN Foundation and the Acorn Active Media Foundation. It was attended by 175 wireless leaders, innovators, activists and community networking proponents from some 20 nations.
SHRP has undertaken a Wireless Communication Technologies and Human Rights Project that seeks to advance universal access to the Internet while also enhancing the reach and impact of human rights groups working in poor, remote, or high-risk regions, where access to the Internet by conventional means is too costly, too difficult, or too dangerous.
"We need to make sure that everybody in society can take advantage of the transformative possibilities of digital technology," said Rey Ramsey, chief executive officer of One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit that has been promoting access to digital technology on four continents.
As municipalities and community activists seek to deploy wireless networks, Ramsey said, they need to keep a clear focus on the underlying goal—making sure that everyone can have access to the digital age. In San Francisco and elsewhere, he said, the focus too often has been on the allure of building a system and the logistics of providing connectivity in various locales rather than on the larger questions of affordability and ensuring that everyone in the community has the incentive, and equipment, needed to take advantage of the wireless access.
For wireless systems to be truly inclusive and successful, Ramsey argued, they must also provide content and applications that can make life better for residents and solve real problems such as providing educational and work force development opportunities.
In San Francisco, Ramsey said, "80% of the focus in the media and the energies of the city" dealt with connectivity issues, including the availability of wireless routers in public places and the affordability of the system. There was, he said, "no real thought about the adoption side, no real thought on the content side, and very little thought" about whether there would be sufficient capacity to make the system truly inclusive.
Still, Ramsey said he remains an optimist about the prospects for community wireless networks. "There are some wonderful things happening across the country," he said, citing wireless systems being developed in locations such as Greene County, N.C., Raleigh, N.C. and Kansas City, Mo.
There has been a move by nonprofit community groups to provide free access. In Toronto, a group called Wireless Toronto has used volunteers for labor and technical assistance in setting up a wireless network in more than 30 "hotspots" in the city. The costs are paid by the venues, such as restaurants and shops, where the wireless routers are installed.
Ramsey said community-based networks organized by activist groups rather than municipalities can be successful by starting small and keeping an eye on the goals of making the service affordable, available to all, and widely adopted within the neighborhoods being served.
Nicole Ozer, director of technology and civil liberties policy for the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned against efforts to provide wireless access at a cost to personal privacy. In some cases, she said, municipalities have been "willing to bargain away privacy" in exchange for allowing companies to set up wireless networks.
A contract by Google and Earthlink to provide wireless service in San Francisco failed to provide options to protect the anonymity of system users, Ozer notes in an article in the University of San Francisco Law Review, and also failed to limit the amount of personal information that could be collected about users and how it might be used for commercial purposes. She outlined a series of check points for providers of community wireless service, including assurances that user IDs and online activities not be tracked, recorded or commercialized.
Even as the wireless networks have rolled out fitfully in the United States, other nations have been moving ahead aggressively. Amir Dossal, executive director of the United Nations Office for Partnerships, said that access to digital technology is an important tool for helping those in the developing world to "live better, learn better." He noted that access to cell phones is becoming widespread and has been a factor in helping to locate people in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in China. Wireless technology also has helped refugees connect and find lost family members in other areas of crisis. But Dossal said there is much more to be done.
"At the United Nations, we've realized that if we are to make any difference to the people of the developing world, we must take a quantum leap," he said. One leap, he said, is to broaden the use of wireless technology as a means to provide unfettered communication in societies. "We should be providing access to all technologies," Dossal said, citing efforts by groups such as the U.N.'s Global Alliance for Information and Communications Technology and Development and the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child initiative.
Market forces will always play a role, he said, in the establishment of wireless technologies. But a system is more effective, Dossal said, "if it is put together and shared widely." He said community wireless groups have an important role to play in broadening access to wireless technology in developing nations. The task can be formidable in states where repressive regimes restrict access to technology and distrust open communication.
Agnès Callamard, executive director of Article XIX, a London-based international human rights organization specializing in freedom of expression and freedom of information, said there are, however, clear international obligations for states to respect the rights of their citizens to communicate freely via any medium. Her organization is named after Article 19 of the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."
Callamard said her group has been working on issues surrounding the allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum. "We are quite worried about the very strong free-market approach" to spectrum allocation in many countries, she said. That can limit access for community wireless networks. Callamard cited actions recently in Brazil, where regulators failed to allow sharing of radio frequencies by community broadcasters, and in Mexico, where a new media law was challenged as unconstitutional because it provides no plan for community and independent media to transmit via digital technologies.
Callamard said the spectrum should be viewed as a public good. "It's a very important fight," she said. "The human rights community has failed to understand what is at stake here."
Allocation of the spectrum also has been an issue in the United States. Community wireless advocates have been pushing for access to the unused portion of the spectrum allocated for TV broadcasts. That unused part of the spectrum, known as "white space," accounts for as much as 75% of the TV airwaves in some markets, according to the Wireless Innovation Alliance. The alliance has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to free up vacant portions of the TV spectrum for use by community wireless networks. The agency is currently studying that possibility.
"We've got to find ways to identify more unlicensed spectrum," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told the wireless summit. Adelstein, a Democratic appointee to the commission, said he would continue to push for flexible licensing initiatives. "The government has an interest in promoting these networks," Adelstein said. "The private sector alone won't lead to an optimal investment."
Adelstein also stressed the importance of wireless networks for reaching underserved populations, both in the United States and abroad. He said that free flow of information is the lifeblood of open societies. He said community wireless networks can also spur economic development as well as provide digital inclusion.
"Availability of broadband really furthers human rights," Adelstein said. "This could become one of the greatest tools the world has ever seen in promoting democracy."
5 June 2008