Paul A. Cross

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Community Networking Applications of Wireless Technology

Wireless technology holds great promise for community networks, so long as bandwidth is available for community use. The following illustrates some of the uses of wireless technology that a community network would support. Community networks provide grassroots access to communications technology and community information in a way that is vital and relevant to the local citizenry. For example, La Plaza provides free access to the community network and the Internet to over 2500 people in a region of 10 thousand people. (See for more information about this community network.) Currently almost all community information infrastructure is built upon wired technology. La Plaza is optimistic that wireless technology can address some of the serious limitations to the wired technology available today, as well as opening new possibilities for the future.

Wireless technology promises to deliver more cost-effective solutions for local area networks (LANs). Since most installations of network technology go into existing buildings, the cost of retrofitting with a wired LAN is often cost-prohibitive. This is especially a concern to community networks, which operate as non-profits with extremely limited resources. Community networks are often involved in providing information access to schools, community centers, health clinics, and other locations frequented by the public. In all of these locations the cost of building the LAN is a major consideration. With issues of building permits, asbestos removal, and capital improvements to consider, wireless technology promises to make LANs in these facilities more feasible.

Further, many of the centers where community networks are located span several nearby buildings, in a mini-campus configuration. The ability to deliver digital information across streets and alleys without running a line is truly compelling. One example: in the small village of Questa, New Mexico (pop. 1750 in 1992, for a total of 3905 people in its local calling area), La Plaza is creating a network that connects the high school, the only medical clinic in town, and the community center to the community network in Taos. All of these institutions are within a half mile of each other and constitute the major "commons" of the community.

Because of the local culture of small-town barn-raising, La Plaza is able to bring all the parties together to dig trenches and lay fiber optic cable. Imagine how difficult it would be to dig trenches and lay cables between agencies in a larger community, where one cannot rely on the interpersonal relationships between the people of the various institutions. Wireless would allow for a cleaner installation. It would be much more appealing for these institutions to join the community network if the installation were less expensive, less disruptive to install, and more easily relocated.

As the village of Questa comes online, you will see health care information, electronic mail, school assignments, agricultural information, and more, all flowing across the network. With wireless technology we could easily add to this scenario even more users that are not likely to be a part of the wired network, such as remote small farms with no telephone, the village offices down the highway, and more outlying buildings in the community.

Wireless technology is very interesting to this community network because of the situation with the existing telephone infrastructure. With a telephone penetration rate of only 65% locally, wireless access to the community network offers many in our community one of their first opportunities to communicate from home to the outside world. Further, since much of the telephone cabling through our communities is quite old, many people find high-speed data connections over these lines to be problematic. Given the current business climate for local telephone access and the low density of our population, no one is very optimistic about the telephone wiring improving to the degree that all our citizens will have data-grade communications lines to their homes. Wireless is our only hope.

Consider the community of Tres Orejas, New Mexico. There you will find fewer than 50 families, most living without telephone, running water, or electricity. Some have solar panels for generating electricity, others charge batteries in town. The nearest power pole or telephone pole is miles away, with no plans for these basic utilities to be any closer any time soon. Imagine the positive impact that wireless access to the community network would have. With little disruption to the natural beauty of the area, we could provide them with communications tools, access to worldwide information, and a neighborhood network. One woman from a nearby community said that she would feel more secure if she had access to better communications resources. She has witnessed cattle rustling and illegal wood cutting, but without the ability to report these crimes in a timely manner, there is little she can do stop these acts.

Home schooling is very popular here. If we could deliver all of the resources of the Internet and the community network to parents in remote locations over wireless, these students would have excellent access to some of the best educational materials available. For many home schoolers, a wireless community network connection appears to be the only way they will ever have access to these educational resources.

For school districts, implementing a network that reached all buildings in the entire district could be accomplished easily. Imagine advanced students from the junior high school able to participate in classes at the high school level without leaving their own campus. There could be resources online for students to use at their own pace without regard to their locations within the district. Wireless could be less expensive to deploy than wiring an entire school district, and less costly and easier to maintain and upgrade, too. Further, with the school on the community network, you might see remote collection of data for a school science project, access to community information for writing a report, or interaction with groups within the community for a civics class. Wireless will prove to be useful in a district-wide setting.

For the local governments and citizen participation, wireless presents interesting possibilities. People would be able to broadcast their notes of town council meetings as they were being created. They could call people to the meeting at the appropriate time, instead of having people sit through the whole meeting in order to speak on a single issue. Further, this could be done without leaving the meeting and without disturbing other people in the room. People who are unable to attend, due to disabilities, conflicting meetings, or other reasons, could monitor what was happening and perhaps even participate through the wireless connection. People testifying at public hearings could call up presentations from outside the town buildings, and would have access to other documents that might be requested during the course of the meeting that they did not necessarily anticipate needing.

Installing public access terminals throughout a neighborhood or region in town would be simple using wireless. It is vital that we make online technology accessible for all people, and wireless public access terminals could play an important role in quickly deploying something that people could use, regardless of whether or not they own a computer.

Visitors to a region could get a guest account and get online from their bed and breakfast accommodations, all without tying up a phone line. They could access road conditions, ski conditions, weather alerts, restaurant and museum guides, all available online now, but only accessible by connecting a modem to a phone line. Further, this information could be delivered at a faster rate over wireless than is possible today over modems.

Wireless is also particularly appealing when connection communities that span multiple telcos. In the Taos region telephone service is provided by USWest and GTE. Running data lines across these boundaries is costly and involves two different providers. A wireless antenna could cross this artificial boundary with no extra work, joining communities together that are now divided by the dialing regions of their local access providers.

In short, community networks would certainly take advantage of and benefit from some public spectrum used for wireless communications. This technology holds great promise to the individual, and community networks focus on empowering the individual with the communications and information tools which are becoming so vital to being a fully participating citizen in our society.