Communications technologies have continued to evolve and now increasingly provide opportunities for deploying low-cost broadband. However, conventional commercial business models for providing broadband often create bottlenecks to spreading connectivity. As a consequence, new efforts to bridge the digital divide will need to examine alternative models of ownership, technology, economic development and social inclusion. Over the past five years, successful community and municipal wireless networks have been overlooked and often
dismissed, yet they hold tremendous promise for improving our nation’s approach to building communications infrastructure, empowering local communities and addressing the digital divide.

This report details the alternative models that underpin the examples above. While no two cases are exactly alike, with each reflecting an intensely local focus and a specific response to local needs and challenges, there are lessons that can be taken and applied elsewhere. They include ownership models that emphasize shared responsibility among stakeholders; the wealth of innovation in flexible, interoperable and open technologies; and strategies that leverage these models and technologies for economic development and social inclusion through truly holistic and locally oriented processes.

We hope this report will map out a vision for community wireless networks in the future and help other cities and communities learn from the successes described so that they might develop their own unique approaches to local broadband needs. By leveraging local capacity, which can range from the technological smarts of community residents to antennae mounts on buildings, it is clear there are many alternative models cities can utilize to advance their communications infrastructure. As the United States faces the most challenging economic climate in generations and a job market that is increasingly dependent on the ability to connect to the Internet, cities around the country cannot rely solely on existing conventional commercial business models to provide affordable broadband to their citizens or wait for existing providers to consider alternative models to promote universal access. The current conditions call for creativity, and thankfully, alternative models have already demonstrated successful approaches to inspire future innovations.

Funding for this project was provided by the Social Science Research Council’s New Media and Communications Large Collaborative Grant.