The Case for Wireless Community Ownership Tawana Petty

The Case for Wireless Community Ownership
Tawana Petty

TawanaPettyIn just a few months, Detroit will boast one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. For those living in already invested areas of Detroit like Midtown, Woodbridge, Eastern Market, Corktown, New Center and Lafayette Park, this may be cause for celebration. Rocket Fiber purports to provide internet speeds “up to 1000 times faster than the average residential connection,” but what does that mean for a predominately Black city, ranked number two in internet disparity? Currently, approximately 40% of Detroit’s population lacks access to the internet.

Research gathered this year by data firm Silk, provided an analysis on Google Fiber, and how discriminatory practices in laying fiber optics further perpetuates wireless access disparities. Silk’s reporting identified that “about 75% of the selected Fiber launch cities have above state average median household incomes and below state average poor populations. The data also showed that the lion’s share of neighborhoods Google Fiber targets tend to be better educated and younger. For example, out of all 50 Fiber communities, 41 had a significantly higher percentage of college graduates residents than the respective state averages.” This and additional information can be found at and Huffington Post’s article “Is Google Fiber Discriminatory?

The disparities identified with Google Fiber in its implementation, make it imperative that Rocket Fiber consider a Community Benefit Agreement (CBA), and expand laying fiber and providing wireless access to the neighborhoods that are historically underrepresented in Detroit.

There is a lot of work currently being done in the city to minimize technological disparities. The Detroit Community Technology Project is a great example of that. To date, “DCTP has facilitated 19 local and international community wireless mesh networks through its partnership with the Open Technology Institute. We coordinate the Digital Stewards Program, which trains community members to build and maintain their own wireless communications infrastructure. Additionally, DCTP offers technical support to various grassroots networks including the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, the Allied Media Conference, and more.”

Recently, members of one of the grassroots networks, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), traveled abroad to expand our wireless knowledge and networks. Diana Nucera, Katie Hearn and myself spent a week in Brazil learning wireless protocols from international community tech allies. We wanted to strengthen our understanding of what community ownership of fiber optics and wireless mesh networks could look like when significantly scaled up. Conversations and training sessions with representatives actively working with, the largest community network in the world, provided several viable options and perspectives on ownership, maintenance and expansion of mesh networks.

We also spent part of our time in Visconde de Maua, Brazil, about 3 hours into the mountains. This location really provided perspective regarding the possibilities and challenges of wireless mesh reach. The home we stayed in was an artist and technology collective residence dedicated to supporting technology incubation and training, as well as artist residency and workshops. It is in a rural area and shares a wireless connection with a neighbor. The network is fast and although it rained heavily every day we were there, it only went down for a few hours on one of the days.

This mesh network was intended to be part of a larger wireless network, but because the location is so rural, there are many trees, and it rains often, some of the other connections do go down frequently. Also, because the location is not easily accessible, and residents are only minimally trained on how to flash their routers, when other issues arise, residents have to wait until someone who is more thoroughly trained on their network can make the trek into the mountains to reset it.

This example is one of the reasons why Detroit’s Digital Stewards Program was designed as a train the trainer style program. This model of training “prepares teams of community organizers, people with construction skills, and techies to design and deploy communications infrastructure with a commitment to the Detroit Digital Justice Principles

·      Digital justice ensures that all members of our community have equal access to media and technology, as producers as well as consumers.
·      Digital justice provides multiple layers of communications infrastructure in order to ensure that every member of the community has access to life-saving emergency information.
·      Digital justice values all different languages, dialects and forms of communication.

·      Digital justice prioritizes the participation of people who have been traditionally excluded from and attacked by media and technology.
·      Digital justice advances our ability to tell our own stories, as individuals and as communities.
·      Digital justice values non-digital forms of communication and fosters knowledge-sharing across generations.
·      Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.

·      Digital justice fuels the creation of knowledge, tools and technologies that are free and shared openly with the public.
·      Digital justice promotes diverse business models for the control and distribution of information, including: cooperative business models and municipal ownership.

·      Digital justice provides spaces through which people can investigate community problems, generate solutions, create media and organize together.
·      Digital justice promotes alternative energy, recycling and salvaging technology, and using technology to promote environmental solutions.
·      Digital justice advances community-based economic development by expanding technology access for small businesses, independent artists and other entrepreneurs.
·      Digital justice integrates media and technology into education in order to transform teaching and learning, to value multiple learning styles and to expand the process of learning beyond the classroom and across the lifespan.

By utilizing these principles to govern the work that we do, we are able to ensure accountability to the communities we engage, while increasing community knowledge and capabilities to maintain their own networks.

One way of the major ways that we engage the community in technology discussions and training is through DiscoTechs. “DiscoTech is short for Discovering Technology. It is a term coined by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which defines a replicable model for a multimedia, mobile neighborhood workshop fair. DiscoTechs are designed so that participants learn more about the impact and possibilities of technology within our communities.

DiscoTechs feature interactive, multimedia workshops designed to demystify, engage, and inform the community about issues of Internet use and ownership, and our communications rights on and offline.

The DDJC’s DiscoTech model has spread far beyond Detroit, as the model has been shared through sessions at the Allied Media Conference and through the 2012 publication of the How To DiscoTech zine. In 2014, the Codesign Studio of the MIT Center for Civic Media coordinated “Counter-surveillance DiscoTechs” in San Francisco; Karachi, Pakistan; Bangalore, India; Ramallah, Palestine; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mexico City; Boston, and New York City. That same year, the Bento Miso Collaborative Workshop hosted a DiscoTech in Toronto, and there was a DiscoTech at the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul.”

If you are interested in learning more about wireless mesh networks and Data Discotechs, or you want to consider facilitating a station at an upcoming Data Discotech, visit: Detroit Digital Justice Coalition.

We look forward to seeing you at the 2016 Allied Media Conference!