What are Community Wireless Networks For?

Greta Byrum, Resilient Communities Program at New America. Email: gretabyrum@gmail.com


Community wireless networks (CWNs) have long been a testing-ground for the precepts of community informatics (CI), defined as "a sustainable approach to community enrichment that integrates participatory design of information technology resources, popular education, and asset-based development to enhance citizen empowerment and quality of life" (Stoecker, 2005). Depending on their design, CWN projects may serve many of these goals in different ways; yet it depends on how the networks are built and used, and who is doing the building and using.i

Thus, CI scholars have asked fundamental questions about how to understand or define the "communities" of CWNs: are they geographically or virtually composed and defined? And how do they function to build relationships, or to foster collective visioning and collaboration toward achieving collective goals - that is, to build community?

In his editorial in the Journal of Community Informatics special issue "Wireless Networking for Communities, Citizens and the Public Interest," Michael Gurstein (2008) asks "whether there is a wireless community informatics beyond that of facilitating access. Perhaps, the broader concept of a wireless CI is nothing more than a peculiar artifact arising from the circumstance that many of the early wireless innovators, while having somewhat parallel backgrounds to the early community networking innovators (progressive politics, university education, technical proficiency, youthful) often referred to themselves as 'community networkers'."

This paper will evaluate claims about social and community benefits emerging from CWNs by synthesizing the findings of three empirical research projects looking in-depth at the impact of particular networks. Thought these studies come from different disciplines, each examines two fundamental questions: what, if any, social utility do these networks have beyond or by virtue of facilitating Internet access; and what is the "community" of the CWN(s) examined. These studies have not previously been compared, since they are drawn from across communities of practice; yet comparison of their findings provides a framework to evaluate claims of broad social benefit emerging from CWNs as well as to understand, leverage, and work from actual documented outcomes.

Practitioners seeking to design and implement networking projects, as well as policymakers in the US, Europe, and developing world contexts searching for local connectivity solutions, can build realistic expectations by exploring the CWN efforts discussed here. Additionally, this paper will introduce a collaborative research methodology used by the CONFINE Consortium that could be adapted to introduce a set of intentional, collective goals - beyond broadband access - into the practice and process of community networking. As we move into another era of investment in local wireless networking as a potential broadband solution, it is important to understand the successes and failures of past efforts, and to create a framework for evaluating social impact and finding the most suitable and appropriate use cases for this technology.


CWN advocates have projected benefits - from digital inclusion to economic development - that should emerge by virtue of creating free public Wi-Fi access (Schuler, 1994,1996; Antoniadis et al., 2008). Yet in the 2008 JoCI special issue on wireless networking, Tapia and Ortiz's article demonstrates how, in practice, many municipal-community wireless projects did not live up the rhetoric that was employed to "sell" them to local governments and stakeholders. Specifically, Tapia and Ortiz illustrate how the two cases they focus on (Portland and Tempe) foundered on the shoals of sustainability (in particular, lack of sufficient funds for maintenance and upgrades) and adoption (lack of interest or buy-in by intended beneficiaries). In these cases - as in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Santa Clara, East Palo Alto, and other localities where local actors tried to provide free public Wi-Fi in the mid-2000s - failures of sustainability and adoption ended the projects, in some cases with millions of (public) dollars and effort lost along the way.

Yet at the same time, many networks have thrived, mostly in Europe. These include some of the largest and longest-standing CWNs in the world: ii for example, guifi.net, at approximately 25,000 nodes and 15 years old, covering large swathes of Catalonia, Spain, and now and reaching into other parts of the world; the Athens Wireless Municipal Network, at 3000 nodes and 13 years old (AWMN, 2014), covering Athens and broad swathes of Greece; Freifunk Berlin, at 12 years old and approximately 400 nodes; and Wireless België, at 10 years old and approximately 700 nodes (data via Avonts, Braem, and Blondia, 2013).

None of these successful networks is municipal or city-led, though they tend to fall mostly within particular geographic areas and depend for expansion and maintenance on local offline populations, and in some cases are supported or leveraged by local municipalities. In fact, each of these networks depends on the efforts of a local volunteer workforce of technologically savvy individuals. All are also part of the CONFINE (Community Networks for the Future Internet) Consortium, a federated community network test bed and research effort supported by the European Union's Seventh Research Framework Programme to explore and demonstrate the social and technological potential of CWNs for practitioners, researchers, and policymakers.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Obama administration is currently working with the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) and representatives from other federal agencies, along with municipal stakeholders, to pilot and support muni-community broadband solutions. Along with municipal governments and NGOs, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other agencies are investing in local wireless along with other solutions, as privately supplied communications infrastructure has not been able to close the broadband gap: 28% of Americans still do not have broadband access at home (NTIA, 2014). As we move into another era of potential investment in local wireless networking as a potential solution to this problem, it is important to understand the successes and failures of past efforts, and to create a framework for evaluating their social impact across different fields of practice.


Data about CWNs can be captured and analyzed in terms of infrastructure-nodes, users, and traffic-or in terms of collective action, organizational theory, dynamics of innovation, information theory, or common pool goods management; or in terms of diffused impact such as user participation in social, civic, educational, or economic activity. Research on the impact and potential social benefits of CWNs thus presents multiple challenges. Existing literature tends to be scattered across multiple fields: primarily, communication studies; computer science; and economics and organizational theory. Moreover, researchers face various challenges arising from the dynamics of interacting with-and methodically analyzing-the "communities" of CWNs themselves.

Christian Sandvig's (2012) study finds that researchers lack context on how to systematically approach the study of CWNs-partly because the networks (and networkers) themselves have such a range of motivations. Thus, Sandvig points out that the way in which a researcher contextualizes CWNs affects the questions she asks, the disciplinary methods she uses, and her conclusions: "while comparison across similar projects might be practically useful, all of these cases still beg for some larger idea to sit inside."

Sandvig goes on to classify the existing approaches to studying of CWNs as: a cycle in the evolution of technologies and infrastructures (per Sawhney, 2003), in which technologies created to fill gaps supersede the systems they were meant to supplement; an expression of a desire for professionalization, making particular "hobbyist" skill sets marketable; an example of user autonomy or protest, in which communities create networks to protest insufficient service in their area; or learning or innovation communities (von Hippel 2005) - user-driven affinity groups that enjoy tinkering with technology.

The question of understanding and demonstrating the social value or future relevance of CWNs-their "bigger idea"-may depend on synthesizing these contexts, with a better understanding of past successes and failures. It may be that CWNs fit into various of Sandvig's contexts-or all of them-over the course of their life cycles. It may be that they simultaneously represent some or all of these things to different participants. Or it may be that researchers have yet to capture another, additional context or an even bigger idea for CWNs to sit inside. Yet as Sandvig points out, without a more deliberately defined context, it is difficult to gauge what we should expect from CWNs, and how tools of policy or practice can build from their actual social and technical benefits.

Currently, many practitioners - especially those emerging from the CONFINE Consortium - are crafting a policy framework based on the idea of CWNs as a model common pool resource (Baig, Roca, Navarro, and Freitag, 2015). But without broader social participation, and without alignment between the social goals of community network organizers and the needs and practices of the broader public, it is hard to imagine how this will occur.

The following synthesis of key case studies across different disciplines will provide a basis for integrating intentional community-building processes. These case studies are frequently cited among practitioners as useful investigations into the question of whether, and how, CWNs can actually provide community-building benefits beyond provision of access.

Use #1: Disciplining the Market

The history of community networking, dating back to the early days of the popular Internet, shows an evolution not only of networking technologies themselves, but of the claims made about their attendant social benefits. As the Internet gained popularity in the early 1990s, groups of users started creating Internet-based communication platforms such as shared message databases and groupware. Some observers wrote about the potential of this first wave of "community networks" as an almost ideally suited participatory medium for community and civic organizing (Schuler, 1994 and 1996); yet many of the first networks focused primarily on providing access, with the assumption that social impact would follow. A responsive set of research suggested that early practitioners of "community networking" applied "technocratic" or "Jeffersonian utopian" assumptions that novel uses of technology in themselves had the power to solve longstanding social problems (Bar et al., 2004). Many researchers asked whether CWNs could actually add social capital to the communities they served (Tonn et al., 2001; Sandvig, 2004).

Another vector of impact is suggested by Auray et al.'s 2003 report, commissioned as part of the European Union's Fifth Research Programme. The STAR (Socio-economic Trends Assessment of the digital Revolution) Issue Report - a policy paper created to inform regulatory and allocation decisions - represents an era in which the potential of community wireless networks was just being explored and several contextual assumptions about impact were first applied and critically examined. The study uses limited field research to shape recommendations to maximize the socioeconomic potential of CWNs. The report analyzes the interaction between the social and technical components of existing CWNs in order to understand not only how these networks emerge and take shape, but also how regulations on various levels, and actions on the part of local governments, could affect the development and impact of this infrastructure.

The report's conclusions are based on four cases: researchers conducted face-to-face or telephone interviews with representatives from The Citizens' Network in Brussels; The Consume community in London, UK; Paris Sans Fil in Paris, France; and Wireless Lyon, France. The authors point out that case selection was "spontaneously limited by the open or closed nature of these communities. For instance, it seemed that very lively communities could have been analysed in Greece…but our repeated approaches to their leaders did not meet with success." It is worth noting that of the four central cases examined in the STAR Issue Report, the Citizens' Network in Brussels has been absorbed into Wireless België; the Consume network in London, UK has disappeared; Paris Sans Fil in Paris, France posted a last wiki entry in July 2007 saying it had been usurped by the mayor's municipal wireless network (Paris Sans Fil, 2007); and Wireless Lyon has disappeared, though Lyon now hosts a yearly conference on Wireless and Mobile Computing (WiMob).

In fact, Auray et al. find that while CWNs often do not survive, their primary impact will be in disciplining or improving the practices of commercial providers. The report's case studies do not give a sense of why or how CWNs offer any shared unique social value beyond this impact:

The history of the adoption of technologies shows that initial not-for-profit uses can give way to more professional offerings based on market economy practices...even if these communities are in the end supplanted by industrialised, standardised services, they have already changed the perception of wireless networks and the demand for high-speed services.

Per Sandvig's (2012) rubric, the STAR Issue Report thus places CWNs within the context of user protest as part of a cycle in the evolution of technologies as a force of market correction. Similarly, other researchers have argued that wireless networking technology could change the telecommunications landscape, giving communities new power to shape both industry and policymaking around telecommunications access (Strover and Mun, 2006). Nevertheless, benefits or outcomes emerging from community wireless projects are limited to their ability to shape the market, not particular social outcomes they offer communities beyond Internet access.

Use #2: Building learning and Innovation Communities

In the years following the STAR Issue report, a body of research on the social potential of wireless networking as communication infrastructure built by and for communities again posited a suite of secondary community benefits emerging from wireless networking (Meinrath 2005, Powell and Shade, 2006; Cho 2008). This framework asserts that because community wireless infrastructure requires that users actually contribute to network design and construction by placing equipment on rooftops in their communities, the physical networks themselves are shaped by the process of social cooperation. Thus some researchers argued that homegrown wireless networks would be more responsive to their users than traditional commercial networks (Antoniadis et al., 2008).

While this framework and approach would demonstrate the relevance of CI principles to CWNs - especially participatory design of information technology resources, asset-based development, and citizen empowerment - some researchers warn of limitations to this kind of social impact (Kavanaugh et al., 2005). In particular, Maria Bina (2007) applied organizational theory and the tools of political economy to understand the social impact of CWNs. Her analysis includes a wealth of empirical evidence examining the motivations of community networkers, drawn from three stages of research: an initial set of exploratory interviews with wireless community enthusiasts; statistical analysis of a survey effort distributed over the network listservs with assistance by participants; and finally, a complementary interview procedure to confirm survey findings.

Like the authors of the STAR Report, Bina discusses the difficulty of sampling community wireless participants in a systematic way: "getting access to the study population in order to detract a suitable sampling frame was challenging due to the fact that there is no documented or objective information regarding the actual number, the geographic distribution, and the contact details of wireless community members." Thus, her quantitative analysis is drawn from only 106 survey responses from members of the Athens Wireless Municipal Network (98% male, mostly between the ages of 18-35) - the very wireless networking community in Greece that the STAR Issue Report authors were unable to engage, and a CWN which has to the current day survived the expansion of standardized commercial offerings in the same area.

Bina's analysis and interpretation find that "wireless communities are mobilized by highly interested individuals who receive intrinsic gratification from working with a new technology within an intimate space grouping together common-minded individuals with whom they socialize and commit to knowledge and resource sharing practices." She goes on to discuss the resulting introverted nature of wireless communities, questioning whether CWNs have the capacity to create shifts in broader technological, economic, or social contexts, or whether they will simply remain a hobbyists' domain.

The study's final interview stage produces further findings on the possible impact of community networking, suggesting that it can create some social goods, including knowledge diffusion and the expansion of connectivity into underserved areas. However, the production of social goods or impact, Bina says, is discussed with unequal levels of enthusiasm among respondents. While some respondents spoke of social welfare goals in her interviews, concrete actions cited as contributing to progress towards them was limited.

Bina does not rule out the potential of CWNs creating social benefits; in fact, she discusses the establishment of cooperative relationships with government agencies, municipal authorities, and academic institutions as a possible vehicle for positive impact. Yet she points out that increasing an external focus on a diversity of social goods or other extrinsic goals might paradoxically undermine the central principle motivating participation and thus the sustainability of virtual innovation or learning communities like AWMN: individual and social enjoyment of the process of collaborating with like-minded individuals: "Should this divergence dynamic strengthen, it will challenge wireless communities' self-sustainability capacity."

Use #3: Pioneering Low-cost or Free Municipal Wireless Access Models

Like Bina's analysis, Alison Powell's 2008 study draws on engagement with a well-established community network: Ile Sans Fil (ISF) in Montreal. It is also the only one of the examined research studies that takes a CI approach, asking whether ISF has succeeded in its self-articulated goal of building communities by building networks.

Like Bina, Powell used surveys distributed over the network's group listserv followed by interviews to compile empirical evidence on the network's successes and failures in achieving its social goals. Powell further employed participant observation, identifying herself as a member of the community, thus applying a "necessary subjectivity" to her observations. Her engagement with the ISF community was long-term, and her presence in it provided the key to her ability to draw participation from organizers and members.

While Bina used the tools of organizational theory to examine the motivations of community networkers, Powell focuses on questions around the co-development of technologies and cultures by examining how concepts of "community" and "technology" are interrelated in the discourse and practice of community networking groups. She posits that the crucial step for community networker organizers, or "geek-publics," is to broaden their self-defining "argument-by-technology" about the benefits of connectivity to serve as a broader platform for participation by surrounding "community publics."

Powell finds that while ISF (unlike AWMN in Bina's analysis) has a coherent vision of the social and economic development impact they imagine will emerge from the community wireless network in Montreal, that vision diverges from the way that users ultimately employ the infrastructure. While organizers hoped that the network would enable users to build physical community and social links, in practice users tended to circumvent the intentions of the network design and simply use the network for access to free, anonymous WiFi service. Further, Powell finds that while ISF perceives itself as collaborating and engaging cooperatively with the broader community, many members of the "community public" do not experience it that way.

Rather, like Bina, Powell suggests that ISF's most significant long-term social impact is in the mobilization and development of its "geek public"-much like Bina's "highly interested individuals who receive intrinsic gratification from working with a new technology." In terms of economic development, Powell finds, like Auray et. al, that the most significant impact is in disciplining and improving the practices of the industry and the model of service provision-as one participant reports, "we have done a great job of domesticating free WiFi in Montreal." Powell reports that by the end of her study, Ils Sans Fils, like Paris Sans Fils, was poised for a takeover by the municipal government, though in the case of ISF she calls it a "gentle institutionalization" implemented through public funding for staff to manage network volunteers. Thus while ISF has failed to deliver on its stated ambitions, its impact is demonstrable on both the municipal and Wi-Fi service provision models.


The CONFINE consortium takes as one of its core goals the development of sustainability strategies for CWNs. It is also explicitly a cross-disciplinary community, composed of researchers and practitioners, that is analyzing itself - and as such, has customized its own methods for data-gathering. Rather than adopting a methodology from one particular discipline, CONFINE partners have employed tools often used by CWN innovators - in particular, collaborative online editing tools such as PiratePad and EtherPad - to collectively both design and answer research questions.

In 2013, CONFINE partners Jeroen Avonts, Bart Braem, and Chris Blondia shared collaborative dynamic online document asking about challenges for CWNs over group listservs and left the responses open, allowing respondents to modify questions and frameworks, draw comparisons, or find suggestions for strategies or practices in others' responses. The researchers created three initial categories of topics relating to the practices and challenges of community networking: social, economic, and legal challenges. They then posted the text pad on a public site.

Word about the online conversation spread via informal relationships and mailing lists; participants commented into the text pad, responding to each other and adding new categories: for example, contributors forked the category defined simply as "legal challenges" into organizational, geographical, technical, and legislative and regulatory challenges. Thus the research framework and the knowledge base were co-designed with respondents, much in the way that open-source communities iterate and fork source code on collaborative platforms such as github. The resulting document is useful for research purposes, but also creates a shared knowledge base useable by the practitioners themselves (Navarro, Braem, and Dimogerontakis, personal correspondence, 2014), and allows the community to articulate shared goals and strategies around these challenges.

This method of engagement reduces some of difficulties found by researchers in engaging inward-looking communities, though the informal outreach methods may also reinforce insular tendencies and limit participation to "geek publics." However, this research perhaps goes deepest in identifying a set of sustainability challenges and clarifying processes and strategies for addressing these challenges across several CWN groups. CONFINE partners have since responded by documenting, adapting, and expanding a set of sustainability principles, tools, and strategies first developed by the guifi.net community. The resulting documentation was presented at the ICTD2015 conference by CONFINE partners Roger Baig, Ramon Roca, Leandro Navarro, and Felix Freitag.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that CI researchers can make to catalyzing broader social impact from CWNs would be to create a diversity of specializations among learning or innovation communities using collaborative tools like the online document editor - deliberately expanding the pool of participants and targeting the initial questions to address identified community-wide issues or goals. A collaborative process outlining the potential uses of a new network to address community challenges - explicitly beyond broadband access - can move among different online and offline platforms, providing bridges among different communities. This would help new community and muni- CWNs better address the needs, interests, and practices of more diverse publics. It could also create an intentional shift toward participatory design of information technology assets and citizen engagement.


The three empirical research studies examined above, chosen as explicit tests of the extrinsic and broader social benefits claimed for CWNs, show similar findings across their different disciplinary contexts. While CI-aligned outcomes such as participatory community development and citizen empowerment do not emerge simply by virtue of the establishment of a CWN, examined networks have had success disciplining the broadband market, expanding access to underserved areas, fostering innovation communities, and demonstrating alternative service models and types of partnerships. Yet also across all case studies analyzed, the "community" of the CWNs tends to be insular - not inclusive of broader publics beyond providing Internet access - and in fact the inward-facing nature of CWN communities appears to be one key to their sustainability.

In order for networking communities to keep from becoming insular and thus having limited socioeconomic for host communities impact beyond provision of access, CWN organizers must engage and strategically align their goals with broader publics and political bodies. In her recommendations, Alison Powell suggests that, in order to aim for social goals that are better aligned with the practices and needs of broader place-based communities of users, network organizers must create:

...different kinds of collaborations to prevent new kinds of divides from forming between educated, professional users of WiFi and other people in the local community… As complex as the internal relationships may become, policy-makers and community organizers should attempt to leave space for visionaries, idealists, artists and geeks to think, talk, and hack their way into new publics.

What diversity of innovation and vision - beyond access to networked technology - could be supported by collaborative networking projects? In fact, there is an opportunity to change the insular nature of many virtual networking communities by expanding the focus of "geek publics" beyond technology to include other affinity-based communities that incorporate technology as a tool: for example, arts and media-making, community organizing and development, or resilience and preparedness.

Following Bina's findings, one key to sustainability for CWNs may in fact be participant self-selection and the enjoyment of crafting a platform for hobbyist knowledge-sharing-even if that knowledge sharing is deliberately cross-disciplinary and extends beyond facilitating access to other socioeconomic, sociopolitical, or cultural goals. A CI framework can provide historical context and tools for information-based community development in order to help networked publics self-define, set goals for broad and diverse social benefits in the context of past successes and failures, and potentially, build hybrid networked communities that collaborate to innovate.

Using the synthesis presented here, practitioners have an opportunity to build from the documented uses and capacities of CWNs to create wireless CIs, and to advocate for policies and investments that will support broad community benefits. Organizers who understand social outcomes can build on the proven ability of CWNs to shape markets, expand access to underserved populations, and most importantly to explore new kinds of partnerships and collaborations in order to forge new affinity-based innovation and learning communities. To leverage that potential, CWNs must be seen as a tool or platform in service of a broader vision defined by an intentionally defined (and intentionally inclusive) community - rather than building network infrastructure as a goal unto itself. Tools such as the collaborative text pad used by the CONFINE consortium - or even routers, wires, and devices -- are simply tools: it is the intention and composition of the organizers and innovators that makes the difference.


This work was supported by the CONFINE Integrated Project.


i For the purpose of this analysis, "community wireless network (CWN)" refers to community-led broadband networking projects that use 802.11 wireless protocols and equipment across substantial network segments, even if they also use wired links.
ii Many of these projects now incorporate both wired and wireless technologies, though they have historically emerged from the community Wi-Fi movement discussed in JoCI's 2005 special issue.


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