Celebrating 35 Years: Wireless Community Network (WCN) Project

35 Facts for CNT’s 35 Years: Each week we’ll expand on one fun fact. Enjoy!

#17 Wireless Community Network (WCN) Project

Bridging the Digital Divide. That’s what CNT began doing in 2002. CNT recognized that the revolution of the

wcn-colorInternet and the near ubiquity of computing left too many low- and moderate-income communities shut-out of the market for broadband because of high costs and de facto redlining. This left them behind as the economy transitioned to one where the medium is bytes and bits, not textiles and steel. Wireless broadband technologies, however, offered the potential to bridge this digital divide because they can be inexpensive to deploy and more adaptable than wired networks.

CNT established three pilot projects to deliver very low-cost, high-speed broadband access to homes, small businesses, and community-based institutions in Chicago’s Pilsen and Lawndale neighborhoods and West Frankfort, in a former coal mining town in Southern Illinois. Using off-the-shelf wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) equipment—the same found in any computer retailer—in conjunction with leading edge, open source mesh networking software developed by the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, CNT deployed pilot networks in these communities with high speeds and at a low cost.

Building nodes

Building Wi-Fi Nodes

A community wireless network is a reflection of the social networks inherent in every neighborhood. The nature of this network is one of community ownership, where the infrastructure resides in homes, schools, churches and businesses. Community residents participate in the maintenance and operations of the network and reach out to each other to provide help and seek advice. In North Lawndale and Pilsen, community residents became engaged in the actual building and deployment of wireless networks. CNT’s community partners had node building parties where, at different events, ex-offenders and youth respectively learned about crimping cable and installing radios in weatherproof boxes that run the network and help to repeat the signal.

The community wireless networks were intended to be tools for economic development. Participants had access to employment training, job postings, education and literacy resources. The very first participant in Lawndale, Danielle Riley, was a nineteen-year-old student at Loyola University. Her family had a computer, but prior to our project, could afford only an unreliable and slow dial-up connection. Through WCN, she regularly accessed the web-only resources that her university provided, and learned to more effectively use the internet for relevant academic material.

CNT recognized that the technology and household savings were meaningless, however, without the knowledge to use it effectively. This is why CNT partnered with community organizations—the Gads Hill Center in Pilsen, Homan Square Community Center Foundation and Neighborhood Technology Resource Center in North Lawndale, and John A. Logan College in southern Illinois—to provide training and support for participants through extensions of computer education programs they already offered.

About the time that the project funding ended, the City of Chicago announced plans for a ubiquitous municipal wireless network with low-cost access in disadvantaged communities. At the time, it looked like a victory, but ultimately this system was never created.

While the Wireless Community Network was a three year experiment, limited by resources and time, our work made a big impact.

In 2005, two of CNT’s community wireless technicians, Paul Smith and Rogers Wilson, traveled to southern Mississippi and Northern Louisiana to assist with disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina. With a team of volunteers from around the country, they helped to restore communications for people displaced by the hurricane. Our technology, designed for urban neighborhoods, proved itself to be useful and flexible far beyond our expectations. You can read more about CNT’s efforts after Hurricane Katrina in The New York Times article “Talking in the Dark.”

To share our experience, CNT wrote a series of three reports: “Community Wireless Networks: Cutting Edge Technology for Internet Access;” a lessons-learned report, “What We Learned;” and a do-it-yourself manual, “Building Community Wireless Networks.” All three are available to download here.

We’re celebrating CNT’s 35 years of impact on sustainable urban development through 35 weeks of posts like this one. If you have a story or picture from our past, please share it with Anjuli@cnt.org. Thanks!

CNT’s work is made possible, in part, through generous support from individual donors. Please click here to make a gift in honor of our 35th anniversary.

Next week: #18 LEED Platinum Building