Seattle Community Network: An Overdue Giant Update and Another Call To Action

Seattle Community Network volunteers working together to build a stand mount for a rooftop cell site at Franklin High School

TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read)

This post is a long overdue update on SCN’s activities since my first introductory post in 2019. Since then, we’ve built out the beginnings of the Seattle community network with 7 core cellular sites serving LTE-based Internet access: coverage map here and searchable version here.

We’ve also taught two cohorts of Digital Stewards (Adult and Youth), our training course on LTE and community networks, and taught at 3 iterations of Tribal Broadband Bootcamps.

We’re currently recruiting users (both homes and local partner orgs or businesses) for all of our network sites! To start, we’ll be prioritizing community members covered under our City and County grants, or local businesses and organizations who will be serving Internet access to the broader public. But we are also discussing how to expand to include other members and supporters as users, especially those who want to contribute bandwidth or computing resources or work with us on DIY installs, and figuring out how to integrate unlicensed wireless and mesh technologies.

We very badly need more passionate technical (or willing to learn and teach) volunteers who are dedicated to helping people empower themselves through technology, and have the time and capacity to work up to leadership roles in network installations/maintenance, funding/grant-writing, or community organizing. We may in the future be looking for employees to help out with community outreach, ongoing operations, etc. Join our monthly community meetings (Meetup group here) and/or join our Discord Server and Volunteers mailing list! Check out the calendar on our website front page. Further questions? Reach out to lcl@seattlecommunitynetwork.org.

Broader Vision Going Forward

Over the past two years, working with our many community partners, SCN has been growing into a community-based grassroots organization running Internet infrastructure in King and Pierce Counties. While not as highly-resourced or performant as paid enterprise networks, we are an open, volunteer-led organization dedicated to teaching and hands-on learning of the processes and tools of running production telecom networks at scale. We seek to open source this knowledge and capability to enable other groups to do the same.

Our members are also part of a larger movement of tech workers wanting to contribute positively to the world (looking at you, Seattle TWC), which has taken many forms over the years. In the 2000s (and earlier) the Seattle members of CPSR (Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility) actually led a prior “Seattle Community Network” project serving the growing computing needs of other local organizations at the time. These days, we don’t have a larger overarching group like CPSR to coordinate our efforts and initiatives, and it seems like our collective efforts are more splintered and atomized. Perhaps we need to take a leaf from the pages of recent history and make one.

Updates and Successes

Cell site installs:

  1. Filipino Community of Seattle

This first Seattle site, installed in summer 2021, serves a number of local households mostly in the Filipino Community Village and Katharine’s Place across the street. The backhaul (source of upstream Internet) is a Centurylink/Lumen gigabit home fiber connection provided through the City of Seattle’s Internet For All initiative supporting community networks.

The second LTE sector expanding coverage southward was installed nearly a year later thanks to a Gofundme campaign brought to completion by the heroic efforts of Jo, one of our UW undergrad volunteers. It is connected to our backhaul via a point-to-point wireless link donated by the Tribal Broadband Bootcamp at which our members teach.

First LTE sector antenna at Filipino Community Center on MLK Way, South Seattle
Second LTE sector antenna at the Filipino Community Village senior living center, connected via a wireless link to the first sector!

2. KCLS Skyway Library

The second Seattle site was in partnership with the King County Library System, at the Skyway Library. Unfortunately since it’s not technically within Seattle city limits (it’s unincorporated King County), we do have to pay recurring Internet fees for this site, though it’s a fairly affordable small business gigabit connection from Lumen. We had our first public outreach events there last week (more on this below).

SCN volunteers working on Skyway Library cell site install in 2021
SCN volunteer Michael installing Skyway Library networking equipment for our cell site
Boo and worker from local company Tribal Electric installing roof conduit for our Skyway Library cell site

3. Oromo Cultural Center

The Oromo Cultural Center install, championed by our Digital Steward (more on this later) from the first cohort Adam Burqa, was the final of the 3 King County grant-funded sites from our Digital Equity for Vulnerable Adults grant, which came out of the CARES act in late 2020. It is also supported by the City of Seattle and Lumen’s Internet For All agreement.

SCN volunteers and Black Brilliance Research members working on Oromo Cultural Center install
SCN volunteers hauling cinderblocks for stand mount weights onto the roof at Oromo Cultural Center.
Cell site and vantage from Oromo Cultural Center roof near Rainier Beach, Seattle

4. Franklin High School

The City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools IT have been incredible supporters of this project, providing staff support and funding for our pilot high school site installs as well as in-building fiber and roof conduit. The City of Seattle has been able to provide free upstream connections for 3 sites so far (Garfield High School, Filipino Community of Seattle, and Oromo Cultural Center), and the University of Washington provides upstream transit for 2 (Franklin High School and SurgeTacoma).

Installer Kris pulling ethernet through conduit on the roof at Franklin HS.
SCN volunteers constructing a roof stand mount base at the Franklin HS cell site install.
A long-range wireless point-to-point antenna at Franklin High School, bringing a high-speed Internet connection from UW Harborview Medical Center to our Franklin HS cell site

5. Garfield High School

SCN volunteers and SPS IT staff mounting the LTE antenna for Garfield HS
Garfield HS cell site, completed
Vantage from Garfield HS cell site

6. SurgeTacoma in Hilltop, Tacoma

We moved our first Tacoma site over to SurgeTacoma where it has a better vantage towards Hilltop and other areas of Tacoma, and set it up with wireless backhaul from the UW Tacoma, where our traffic for that site is being passed upstream through the UW network.

Our SurgeTacoma cell site just south of the Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma
SCN installers Spencer and Esther working on the UW Tacoma end of a point-to-point wireless link to SurgeTacoma cell site, where it provides an upstream internet connection.

7. [In Progress] Tacoma Public Library Main Branch

We’re currently in the process of installing a second site at Tacoma Public Library Main Branch thanks to the PIT UN 2020 and 2021 grants.

SCN volunteers Cody and Kris pulling ethernet cable to the roof for our TPL Main Branch cell site install
SCN and TPL Main staff working on the cell site install
UW Tacoma Professor Emma Slager at our first site survey of TPL Main in Winter 2021

User installs:

The Seattle Community Network currently has around 15 client CPEs (Customer Premises Equipment- basically LTE hotspots) attached. Nearly all (excluding a few test devices) are serving users who did not previously have a reliable broadband Internet connection (at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up) at home, and now do. It’s unclear exactly how many people we’re serving, as several CPEs are in semi-public settings such as a community room or shared tiny home village space. Currently the Filipino Community Center network, Garfield High School network, and SurgeTacoma network are serving users at the Filipino Community Village senior living community, Katharine’s Place, and Nickelsville Central District.

We have a similar future install coming up at the LIHI Southend Tiny Home Village, where LTE coverage is provided by our cell site at the Oromo Cultural Center near Rainier Beach.

Community Outreach and Community Building:

We are recruiting more users, especially in Skyway and Tacoma!

Towards this goal, starting in mid July we’ll be doing some community outreach workshops at the Skyway Library, called “DiscoTechs” in the framework we learned about from the DCTP (Detroit Mesh) network folks. We’ll be teaching and discussing how to build community-centered Internet! Here’s one such event that just happened:

Flyer for our July 2022 outreach workshop at Skyway Library

In Tacoma, where operations are managed by the Tacoma Cooperative Network led by Bee and Ann, we only have one user so far. We’re hoping to do some tabling and workshops there in August, and are always on the lookout for grassroots community organizations to partner with; let us know if you have ideas or connections!

TPL Librarian Amita on a rooftop with founding Tacoma Cooperative Network (TCN) members Ann and Bee
TCN technician Lane with former board member Cynthia

An interesting sidenote on user recruitment: The New York Public Library system is currently running a similar Internet Access pilot program using LTE running in CBRS, and we are comparing notes and strategies for user recruitment as well as technology deployment! Their most successful outreach strategy so far has been to promote the project during other (unrelated) library programming in those libraries where the LTE tower sites are located, and we are considering how to borrow this strategy.

SCN Hack Night: Two weeks ago we had our first “Hack Night” at the Filipino Community Center, where SCN volunteers ate pizza and played with networking equipment. We tracked airplanes with RtlSDRs, learned how to configure our Baicells CPEs for user installs, spray painted a telecom cabinet in preparation for our TPL Main install, and took apart a mysterious Cambium CPE donated to us from the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California.

Digital Stewards:

Over the past Winters of 2021 and 2022, SCN members and contributors led by the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBR) designed and taught both a pilot Adult and Youth cohort of our Digital Stewards course. The 13-week project-based Youth Digital Stewards pilot course was also written and taught in collaboration with API Chaya and the Breakfast Group, and ended with a successful online community celebration.

Digital Stewards students and instructors at an in-person crimping workshop in 2021
Youth Digital Stewards 2022 final presentation and community celebration announcement flyer
YDS students on field trip to Filipino Community Center cell site with instructor Shaun from BBR

Starting in Fall 2022, the Breakfast Group and BBR will be leading an initiative to bring the Youth Digital Stewards program into the Seattle Public Schools where they already run mentorship programs. We’ll specifically be looking to create hands-on learning experiences for students at Franklin and Garfield HS where we have network sites.

Meanwhile, in Feb 2022 our Adult Digital Steward Jonathan Porter began running weekly Tech Help Desk hours on Fridays hosted at the Filipino Community Center with support from SCN volunteers, providing a broad range of IT, computer help, and teaching similar to his support hours at the Rainier Beach Community Center before the pandemic. These hours have been especially successful at reaching the senior residents in the Filipino Community Village, resulting in many of our home network installs there. Jonathan, now employed as staff at the Filipino Community Center, has integrated his work with the other IT and tech support activities for the seniors there throughout the week.

SCN Help desk in the Filipino Community Village Integrated Learning Center makerspace
SCN Help desk in the Filipino Community Village lobby

Jonathan and Chris Webb from BBR are piloting a train-the-trainer version of Adult Digital Stewards in collaboration with the local re-entry support organization Fresh Start PS. Over the next year we’re also newly looking to expand Digital Stewards into IT and networking workforce development training with our partners at Fresh Start and EEC-WA.

SCN volunteers and Digital Stewards have also helped teach at 3 iterations of the Tribal Broadband Bootcamp in CA so far, and we will also be teaching at the next one in Eugene, Oregon hosted by the Network Startup Resource Center this August:

SCN Digital Steward Adam and other attendees at the 2nd Tribal Broadband Bootcamp in Temecula, CA.
SCN volunteer Firn at the 2nd Tribal Broadband Bootcamp in Temecula, CA.

Software Infrastructure:

We have had a number of extremely successful volunteer-led software and technical projects over the past two years, with many led by our UW research students and some by SCN community members. I’d like to call out and thank the volunteers for some especially helpful and well used ones here:

Website: Our PhD student member Sudheesh wrote the initial website a few years ago, and soon after our undergrad research student Dominick wrote a docs site for it. Then Dom, Windy, Katelin, and other undergrads re-vamped the website, and another undergrad Melinda implemented their design. Melinda has switched gears to more back-end development, setting up a RADIUS server for authentication from a captive portal for promoting SCN to the broader public (designed by Katelin and PhD student Firn, who started out as an undergrad in our lab).

Coverage Mapping: Our coverage map visualization and webapp was written by our undergrad-turned-grad students Mark, Mick, and Firn, where Mark also continued development on it in classes including the Community Networks Engineering Capstone taught by me and my advisor Professor Kurtis Heimerl last Fall. Our Android app for network performance measurement (speed tests and signal strength) which reports data directly to the coverage map from our attached test phones, was written by persistent and patient undergrad Zhennan and PhD student Matt J, who has also helped out as an RF expert and deployment guru on many occasions. Another project team from the Community Networking Capstone (Abhi, Alex, Ivy, Kexuan, and Marcus), as well as current undergrad student Anthony who also helps with organizing in our Meetup group, Shaun from BBR, and Vislee from our Youth Digital Stewards cohort were instrumental in collecting manual measurements for the map from our CPE devices. :)

Coverage mapping at the Filipino Community Center in 2020
Coverage mapping at the Skyway Library in 2021
Coverage mapping in Central District with Community Networks Capstone class team

Internal Monitoring and Server Infrastructure: One of our first community volunteers Michael as well as Matt J helped set up and currently maintain our LibreNMS instance, which has been incredibly useful in putting out timely alerts when we have network outages. (As a future extension we’re also looking into using Netbox, a well regarded configuration tracking and ground truth establishment tool.)

Another PhD student Innocent created a GNS3 instance to help us simulate our Mikrotik configuration changes before deploying them, and is looking into setting up iNethi for network-hosted user applications (in addition to being a general Mikrotik and Linux wizard who has implemented some crucial networking bug fixes).

We also have an LDAP server for managing remote logins thanks to Howard, another undergrad student.

Funding: Last year our lovely undergrad student Jo made our Gofundme video, which brought in several thousand dollars to fund the second eNB (on a much higher roof) at the Filipino Community Center! This greatly expanded our coverage area to the south.

Thanks to Sudheesh, we have also received quite a bit of funding through Benevity, a platform for donation matching from tech companies for volunteer hours contributed by their employees. Our wonderful volunteers Dom and Shourya have both contributed a lot through Benevity via their internships or jobs at F5 Networks and Microsoft!

Challenges and needs

Here I’ve outlined a few current needs and big organizational hurdles coming up ahead for us as our network grows and scales to more users. An observation I’ve made is that the most helpful and active volunteers are those who are excited about doing both technical projects and teaching or community organizing, but there is room for all divisions of roles!

LIHI Othello Village Coverage Testing Survey

People needs

We need more volunteers for technical projects!

Volunteers at the Franklin HS and KCLS Skyway Library Installs

Recruiting volunteers for the network has been a particular challenge for a number of reasons. When it comes to IT, networking, or even physical installation and DIY construction tasks, there’s a perceived high barrier to entry and few people with prior experience; people must join with an explicit willingness to jump in knowing little, learn a lot on the fly, stay hungry to keep exercising their new knowledge, and carve out a role for themselves. Moreover, hosting (and attending) community building activities is still hard, given the constant threat of Covid.

Some current technical tasks needing hands:

  • Maintaining and helping build our software infrastructure, such as our Android app and coverage map.
  • Installing new user sites and cell sites. As user sign-ups ramp up, we’ll especially need installers to coordinate with users in both individual homes and group settings such as the Nickelsvilles to install wireless network gear. Those with experience in construction or electrical work, or general building/making skills are especially appreciated!
  • Applying sysadmin and network monitoring or security expertise, and teaching others. We’ve been encountering everything from Linux kernel bugs to bad software updates to physical building access issues. Anyone with relevant experience who might be able to help us “harden” the network for production, e.g. configure our firewalls properly, improve our system for alerts and remote access, etc. would be much appreciated! Alternately, those willing and excited to learn these skills are also needed.
  • We need people willing to be “on call” to respond to outages and help users troubleshoot network issues- more on this below.

We need volunteers interested in community organizing!

Many tasks related to the network are more about communication and organizing than technology, such as organizing our monthly meetings, making publicity materials, and forming and maintaining community relationships. Key communication tasks include:

  • Media production: We are constantly needing help producing and editing publicity materials, publicizing our various events on social media, and reminding our community internally about the events and what needs to be done. We’d also love to produce some training and tutorial videos to help onboard new members, and potentially formalize these on an open courseware platform of some kind.
  • Organizing fun community building activities for our group such as volunteer socials :)
  • Seeking out contacts and building relationships (usually over email and phone) with community nonprofits and institutions who work with people struggling with connectivity, especially to recruit users for the network sites. More on this below!

We need volunteers interested in teaching!

Our volunteer Firn helping a FCV installee with donated laptop setup
A SCN picnic social in summer 2021!

Teaching is core to our mission and daily operations. We need people who are willing to teach each other and work together to build our community of practice, as well as those who can teach the general public about Internet infrastructure and how to empower themselves via computing tools. Moreover, we especially need people who would be excited and energized about combining multiple roles (e.g. taking on a technical project/specialization and teaching other volunteers about it) for the cohesion and growth of our community. Key teaching tasks include:

  • Providing mentorship to technical project volunteers (see above)
  • Coordinating and teaching workshops involving community discussions about access and technology needs, how the Internet in general works and how our access technology works, etc. for community building and education.
  • Staffing our Technology Help Desk at the Filipino Community Center (and potentially more in the future at the Skyway Library and other locations). Anyone who has ever used a search engine to troubleshoot a computer issue would easily be able to do this!
  • Helping teach our Adult and Youth Digital Stewards programs and/or Tribal Broadband Bootcamps for training in Computer Networking, Radio, and IT skills!

Funding/Resource Needs:

Our funding and resource needs are also growing quickly as our activities scale. Some of our current pain points include:

  • Administrative capacity for the Local Connectivity Lab, the nonprofit that houses SCN’s finances and legal requirements. We would love to hire staff to help with internal accounting and financial reporting, coordinate volunteers and keep track of legal paperwork (especially for our youth programs), and/or help with digital media production and publicity on social media.
  • We’d love to obtain a public IPv4 address block, so we can place a core Internet router at the Westin Building, which would allow us to peer with other networks and reduce our dependence on service levels or pricing provided by our upstream providers (currently Lumen and UW).
  • Cloud computing resources: with our current software infrastructure, we are currently going through our nonprofit Azure credits just barely faster than we can afford.
  • We need money for printing, publicity, and marketing materials as well as community organizing infrastructure (such as our meetup group) to help us ramp up both user and volunteer recruitment.
  • It would be nice to have a dedicated space to store equipment and host community-building activities, not dependent on other organizations or building access constraints!

Task: Formalizing Operations Strategies and Governance

  • Timely monitoring and outage response: We haven’t formalized an “on call” strategy for outage alerts or help requests, so very few people have been actively monitoring site status and making sure the occasional network outages get resolved in a timely manner. While only three sites have users and there aren’t too many users who might need occasional tech help this hasn’t been urgent, but as we scale, the urgency of network emergencies will increase.
  • A broader Operations Strategy: We’ll need to hash out some concrete and defined (but flexible) roles for our Digital Stewards, network host, and operational partner organizations for maintaining the network. Currently LCL, BBR, TCN, SPS, and Filipino Community Center IT are providing core network operational support. The number of people and organizations involved will need to expand as we start adding more users on our various sites, and it will likely help to formalize onboarding and training a bit.
  • Expanding usership to non-grant-based users and a diversity of wireless equipment: We’re working on formalizing policies for adding people and devices to our network in an equitable way that reflects our core mission and values. This likely means maintaining some network capacity for open WiFi, maintaining certain quality of service metrics for our grant-based user groups, creating user policies such as participation requirements or suggested donations, and architecting a join process for more diverse types of access networks people might want to try in addition to our LTE gear.
  • Formalizing processes for community decision making for the network, and for keeping everyone up to date on smaller working-group activities and decisions. This may need to include an agreement and platform for sharing finances to some extent (e.g. for repairs, upgrades, and expansion) between community network sites and user groups.
  • Formalizing our onboarding process, for both new volunteers and Digital Stewards!

Task: Growing and maintaining our community partner relationships

In my opinion, this has been simultaneously the most challenging and most important task. Holding these relationships, making sure they are productive, and weathering through any challenges related to inter-organizational politics or interpersonal drama has been crucial to successfully running network installs, other events, and initiatives together so far.

As I see it, the technical infrastructure of our community network could not exist without networks of community members, especially between SCN’s champions within each partner org; this interpersonal infrastructure stitches together a fabric on which the physical infrastructure is built and maintained. Meanwhile, the network activities give us shared goals and passions on which to further grow and maintain our relationships.[1]

As a successful example, the Filipino Community Center is one of SCN’s strongest and most committed anchor partners, thanks in particular to the head of IT Kris Larsen’s deep engagement and energy towards both building out cell sites and our user help and outreach efforts. That partnership has been instrumental in helping us establish a physical presence in the South Seattle community, where they have been graciously hosting our Technology Help Desk Hours and Hack Nights. BBR member Jonathan Porter’s new role on staff there further strengthens and solidifies our communication and partnership. The more anchor partners and relationships like this we are able to collectively build and maintain, the more robust and smooth our communications and operations will be in the future.

IT champions Kris & Michelle at the Filipino Community Center

Challenge: Seasonal Ebbs and Flows

Volunteer turnover is a constant struggle, and our (admittedly ambitious) initiatives constantly feel short staffed. One of the hardest problems has been how to keep our community members updated on what the initiatives are and when/where they are happening, so that people can show up, plan around them, or help out. We really need more people who are willing to take on leadership roles on both technical and community organizing projects, and see them to completion. Heading into the summer season, a lot of key community members have been on travel for weddings, festivals, and conferences, or out with Covid for a few weeks–myself included. I am myself struggling with competing goals such as trying to find time to write my thesis proposal, which involves a lot of academic paper reading and is largely unrelated to activities for the network.

Our next installs and outreach activities are thankfully scheduled for a few weeks out, and perhaps it is okay for progress to be slow now and ramp up into the Fall. In the long term, I can’t help but wonder if the wave of organizing energy at the start of Covid is simmering down, and whether there is still enough energy and passion to accomplish our goal of setting up a stable, sustainable community network here.

[1] Here’s an academic paper I co-authored about this phenomenon in community networks.

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