Community Internet

Why should arts and culture funders care?

Sascha Meinrath and Ben Scott

Artists and arts institutions rely on the free flow of information to create and distribute their work. The converging digital environment presents many new options for the delivery of specialized information to targeted audiences, and the cultural community is becoming increasingly sophisticated in deploying these tools. However, the United States is only sixteenth in the world in broadband Internet penetration, and the growing digital divide presents a challenge to the vision of ubiquitous access to high-quality images, sound, and text. Community Internet offers one way to overcome this problem in both rural and urban communities while providing an innovative means to reach new audiences.

The topic of new approaches to broadband Internet access seemed a good fit for a conference titled "Culture Jam: Friction, Fusion, Synergy," the GIA 2005 conference. This article grew out of a conference session, "Community Bandwidth," presented by Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media. Two of the speakers, Sascha Meinrath of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network and Ben Scott of Free Press agreed to write an introduction to the topic for those unable to attend the session. Other session presenters were Matthew R. Rantanen of the Tribal Digital Village and Emy Tseng of the Innovation Funders Network. Several web resources are listed at the end of the article, and we invite you to contact Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media at if you would like to be informed of future educational events on this and other topics relating to media and media policy.

Helen Brunner, Media Democracy Fund
David Haas, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media

High-speed Internet access is fast becoming a basic public necessity — just like water, gas, or electricity. But far too many people are finding themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Over 60 percent of the people in this country either can't get connected or can't afford the high prices of commercial service. Many communities have taken matters into their own hands to solve this wide-spread problem. Local governments, nonprofit organizations, and schools, often working in partnership with the private sector, have built their own high-speed networks — creating Community Internet systems to serve local residents. Using low-cost wireless technologies (especially free, open source software solutions), these grassroots networks provide neighborhoods everywhere with affordable, universal access to high-speed broadband services.

Community wireless networks that aim to serve social needs provide both universal, low-cost access for the public, government, civic organizations, churches, and educators, and also an impetus for a new tier of commercial applications and attendant economic development. Much like the Internet has done, community wireless provides an enormous return on investments — maintaining low costs while providing an increasing number of benefits to all as more people get online.

Central to this technology is public access. Community networks increase the number of speakers in the public sphere by decreasing the cost of service, by making it easier to gain access to information, and by lowering the barriers to producing and disseminating media. The “mesh” network of these community systems offers not only connection to the Internet, but also a local network for sharing a variety of services and applications. “Mesh” refers to the lay-out of the physical network architecture, which links all users in a spiderweb of interconnectivity (diagram available in print copy).

Community networks offer extraordinary social benefits because of the nature of the technology, and public service is a primary motivation for implementing them. The bandwidth capacity of these networks allows every resident to become an Internet broadcaster or publisher. The local network provides its service community with web resources — from the mundane (email and web hosting) to the more innovative (streaming micro-broadcasting, video chat-rooms, and on-demand media archives). Since the community network (a local “Intranet”) allows direct connection from any location on the network to any other location, communities can set up forums for political debate, artistic display, or educational fare. The system can easily accommodate streaming video and audio from local events — from town council and PTA meetings to the annual music festival and Friday-night high school football.

The services of local governments, educational, and civic organizations can be enhanced. Public safety and social service groups, local schools, churches, and municipalities are embracing these technologies in ever-increasing numbers. Not only are these institutions able to use the entire network for peer-to-peer communications, they can create their own local applications and services tailored to their individual needs. A few examples include: a school could set up a local wireless network and broadcast a student-produced news program or theatrical event in each classroom and also make it available to the community at-large; a housing project could establish an online media forum to feature local artists, upcoming events, job listings, or educational opportunities; social workers and public safety workers out in the field could update their files as they travel around town; and religious organizations could web-cast services to residents whose health prevents them from attending. The possibilities are limitless.

Community Internet has the potential to create state-of-the-art, multi-media systems built by the communities they serve and made with the consumer devices people already buy. These wireless networks are intended to be operated, maintained, and expanded by local people. They offer job and technical training opportunities as well as the local empowerment of contributing to community development from the ground up.

The success of Community Internet networks so far has prompted widespread interest from urban planners, local elected leaders, media-makers, and artists. They all have a desire to bring these technologies home. Properly designed and implemented, these networks have the capability to spread from town to town and country to country, adapting services as they integrate with the needs of a given community. Developing countries that lack the wired infrastructure of last-generation communication technologies can jump directly into wireless solutions. Rural areas cut off from urban economic centers can find new avenues for progress and improving quality of life. The development opportunities available using these networks will greatly enhance the work of everyone, from international aid workers and NGOs to small businesses, using off-the-shelf wireless devices. The practical applications possible through Community Internet tools make them ideal technologies to achieve realistic communications goals.


Sascha Meinrath is an editor, and project coordinator, Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN). Ben Scott is a policy director, Free Press.