Most great movements and organizations start with a few small and local events. On a gray and cloudy weekend in November 2019 a brand new nonprofit internet service provider was born in Tacoma, Washington. This event was celebrated by a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by a handful of jubilant neighbors and volunteer organizers from the community and neighboring internet service provider Clatskanie Co-op. The following day, installations of antennas and receivers on nearby houses began. With the first installs complete, Tacoma Cooperative Network was officially online. Over the following week, a total of six new member households were connected with high-speed internet, all enthusiastic about the structure of a nonprofit cooperative for managing internet as a utility. While six members may seem like a modest start, Tacoma Cooperative Network part of a larger movement: the nonprofit is just one of many communities across the United States and even around the world choosing to view the internet as an essential utility and manage it as a community, rather than purchase internet through big telecom providers.
Using antenna and receivers and beaming data from house to house allows community organizers to avoid the expense and logistical nightmare of laying cable. Instead, we purchase equipment that works out of the box to transmit data in a line-of-sight stream from an antenna to a receiver, originating at a “gateway” that is connected to fiber at the street level. Every member household joining the network helps to grow the “mesh,” and cutting edge software (Althea) allows the signal to take the most efficient path to the gateway and reduces latency for a smooth, fast experience online. Privacy is paramount, and relays (users that transmit the signal to the gateway) cannot see data from other users.
The model we are using was originally tested in rural areas, but similar models have been successfully deployed in urban areas. There are challenges to setting up in an urban area: while we don’t have thick groves of trees, we still have ornamental trees, often just as big as their forested cousins that plague other locations. One of the biggest obstacles is aiming and installing with aesthetics in mind, as most members not only want their internet fast, but they want their house to look nice. This means that most members do not prefer to have a pole sticking up from their roofs, and opt for dishes that are installed closer to the roofline in order to preserve the traditional home silhouette. As a result, this requires some creative aiming and means we have to bounce the signal from relay to relay more than might otherwise be required. There are a lot of possibilities for increasing access and making it easier to get line-of-sight signals to new member homes, such as partnering with tall local businesses willing to mount some minimal equipment on their roofs, potentially in exchange for reduced internet costs. Until then, these challenges remain and call for creative solutions as we continue to grow the network.
Additionally, our work involves maintaining the network and educating members on how to use digital currency to pay for their service, a requirement which is built into Althea’s software. It’s a shift in how business is conducted, but most of our members have embraced it quickly, and future updates ensure that paying for the service will only get easier over time. Moving forward, we continue to hit the streets to talk to more folks about their internet service and help get more new members on board and connected with fast, affordable internet. If you want to see us in your neighborhood, and are willing to talk to your neighbors, let us know.
Excitement is growing now that we have an operational network. We are in the middle of our first fundraiser to raise money for a new gateway location and installation costs in order to increase access and help families join the network. Every little bit helps, and even if we don’t reach our overall goal, we will put all money received to good use: every $300 raised installs a new household. (If you can donate or spread our campaign, please click here to visit our Chuffed page.) In the meantime, we are considering a few new locations for the next gateway in a nearby neighborhood, and will soon be contacting folks who have shown interest. We are also about to apply for our 501(c)3 status, which will allow us to apply for grant funding to help get equipment in people’s hands.
Although this is an exciting time for this new and expanding community-owned internet project, we need help. Advancing and growing as an organization will take boots on the ground and people on phones. If you want to see this project succeed and have time to canvass, make calls, donate money, or otherwise volunteer and support this organization, please reach out to us through our Facebook page, our Twitter, or our email: email@example.com, and follow us on Instagram too! In this stage, as an organization, we are highly responsive to volunteer input and interest: if you want to see something like this in your neighborhood, and you are willing to talk to your neighbors and friends, we can work with you to bring fast and affordable internet to your street. Register here to let us know you are interested.
Around the world, communities like ours are forming similar networks, creating what is becoming a promising new movement and a better way of locally managing an essential utility. As a cooperative, Tacoma Cooperative Network gives members a powerful voice and meaningful choices about how the internet is delivered, how prices are set, and control over other factors that will help shape and support our community. We do not have to be resigned to slow speeds, poor customer service, fines and penalties, expensive and limited options, or any number of other challenges that come with internet provided by big telecom. The future of the internet is in our hands, and working together will open doors to incredible potential and possibility.