Community Networks in Seattle: A Call to Action

tl;dr: We’re starting a community cellular (LTE) Internet access network in South Seattle for underserved neighborhoods in response to Covid-19. Want to join in?

Esther Jang
Nov 2, 2020 · 10 min read

Could you live without Internet access, or with spotty, slow and unreliable access, in a moment when nearly every part of life has moved online?

Covid-19 has undoubtedly worsened digital divides, bringing into stark focus the relative disconnectedness of the more rural and underserved communities around Seattle. At the recent virtual Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2020 conference hosted by the Internet Society, Navajo Nation advocate Darrah Blackwater described seeing the sudden, disproportionate impact of long-acknowledged, persistent digital divides on Indigenous families as “humbling.”¹ In addition to successful techno-activist projects such as Muralnet working to improve connectivity in North American Indigenous territories, there has been a recent surge of interest in new projects to connect semi-urban or rural communities throughout the US due to this new recognition of need.

In this post, I will focus on an immediate call to action for urban tech workers local to the Seattle area.

Underserved, low-income communities exist not only in rural areas, but in the heart of the city, where Internet options are often limited due to local monopolies or near-monopolies. Even with the existence of $10–15/mo government-mandated plans for low-income people (such as Comcast Internet Essentials and CenturyLink Lifeline discounts), these plans are limited to low speeds of around 15–25 Mbps for download (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up is the slowest speed that the FCC still defines as “broadband”) and residents are typically ineligible if they’ve missed a bill payment in the last year (incredibly likely given unemployment and ongoing recession, though some restrictions have been temporarily lifted for the pandemic). In a time when work, socializing, and even primary school are all done over video calls, bandwidth needs are much higher. In short, low-bandwidth, high-barrier plans won’t work for people living in low-income housing, encampments, or transitional housing, people who have lost their jobs, or people who will be struggling to make up rent over the next few years.

Call to action for tech workers in Seattle

As a Seattle tech worker and community networks advocate, I feel some amount of personal responsibility to address the crisis and help drive change. Our influx into the city, high salaries, and expensive tastes have raised rents, reduced upward income mobility, and consequently pushed residents south to neighborhoods with less infrastructure. However, I hope that as tech workers we can also add value by actively contributing our substantial knowledge, resources, expertise, and mentoring capacity back into our local communities, to try and subvert this systematically adversarial madness. We can and should help improve the situation that we passively create every day. At least that’s what I tell myself at night.

Building community-owned infrastructure for Internet access could be one strategy for this kind of work. Community networks are networks owned and operated by their users, usually through a local cooperative or nonprofit organization. This structure puts the power to run and govern communications back into the hands of the people who need it, facilitating community empowerment and autonomy in the face of insufficient or too-expensive ISP services. Moreover, community networks bring neighbors together across professions and socioeconomic boundaries to build communities of practice around the technical, administrative, and multi-disciplinary skills of networking. Prominent examples around the world include NYCMesh in New York City, the Equitable Internet Initiative in Detroit, Guifi in Spain, AlterMundi in Argentina, Freifunk in Germany, Rhizomatica in Mexico, Zenzeleni in South Africa, and more. You can learn more via the many organizations that promote and support community networks, including the Internet Society (ISOC), the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR).

If all this sounds a bit too optimistic, you might be right. The vision and optimism come with an incredible amount of persistence, collective expertise, community buy-in, and labor needed to start and keep a community network running at scale. The largest of the above networks were either founded and supported by a vibrant technical community, such as the Berlin hackerspace c-base or the open-source software collective AlterMundi, or they enlist local companies as partners, as in Guifi.

The NYCMesh network in New York strikes a good balance, as I have found by volunteering with them when visiting for the holidays. Instead of segregating a core technical community from the rest of the network, the community is holistically built and maintained around the network. While some administrative leadership exists based on long-term contribution and participation, the majority of installers are trainees, many with little to no technical experience to start. Novices work with more experienced install leaders to learn the skills to lead their own installations, and the community grows and produces new leaders organically over time. DIY repair and crowdsourced help are coordinated over a massive Slack group containing all users, with channels for specific neighborhoods, hubs, and technical topics. NYCMesh took several years to reach a steady, high rate of new participation and growth, during which time the most dedicated members put in countless hours daily to raise funds, wrangle agreements for backhaul and other infrastructure across the city, and write software and documentation to make deployments easier.

Our project in Seattle and Tacoma

Our community networks project, started in 2020 as a partnership between the Local Connectivity Lab (LCL) and the University of Washington (UW), aims to directly address the digital divide here in the Puget Sound, by focusing on bringing high-speed, affordable connectivity to lower-income neighborhoods and people in the face of rising inequality in our city. We hope to do this by joining hands with local community and public organizations such as schools, nonprofits, community centers, makerspaces, libraries, small businesses, and tiny house villages to reach those who remain without access. Seattle’s home Internet penetration (high-speed broadband) has been measured in the past few years at around 95%, high by national standards, while home access has been measured at only 79% in the neighborhood of Hilltop, Tacoma.

We know from experience that local community organizations already working on poverty alleviation and digital equity will have the best insights on how to find those who are struggling. We aim to build an empowered network though these organizations and their patrons, who can become anchor institutions for community access. Our main partner in Tacoma is the nonprofit Tacoma Cooperative Network working in the Hilltop neighborhood, which uses Althea’s mesh routing technology.

The Tech: Cellular networks in unlicensed spectrum

The technology we’ll be leveraging is 4G LTE networks, powered by open-source software such as open5gs, and operating in the Citizen’s Band Radio Service (CBRS) frequency spectrum, or band 48.² The CBRS spectrum band, at 3550–3700 MHz, has recently been opened by the FCC with a general access tier (GAA), allowing unlicensed devices to receive dynamic spectrum grants from a Spectrum Allocation Service (SAS) database every few minutes. Priority access licenses (PAL) have been auctioned to telecoms, and their devices will take priority if one of those license-holders wants to transmit in the same area as an unlicensed radio device. However, for the time being, this spectrum is open enough to allow unlicensed devices to transmit in much of Seattle and Tacoma. This open dynamic spectrum allocation has newly enabled us to run our open-source cellular networks in the US on a small community scale. (Previously, LCL’s members have deployed these LTE networks in rural villages in Indonesia and Mexico.)

Cellular networks, with their higher-power access points, more favorable spectrum, and more efficient waveforms, have a much wider coverage area and user capacity than typical WiFi networks, and are also designed for user mobility (cell phones). Some initial line-of-sight link performance tests from our test deployment at the University of Washington yielded 60 Mbps down and 8 Mbps up with a CPE (Consumer Premises Equipment, a stationary user device with our SIM card) at 1.3 miles away, from a backhaul connection around 150 Mbps.

With a mobile device, the range is decreased but still on the order of a quarter mile even without line of sight.

The BaiCells Nova 233 CBRS basestations we’re using can support 96 simultaneous users with a peak bandwidth of 116 Mbps per link. We still have to measure how the performance degrades with more users and under backhaul saturation, and I’ll post updates when that happens as we build out a bigger testbed. I’ll also be posting technical guides to setting up networks the way we have done, as they get written throughout the course of the project.

As a technical long-term vision, we’re hoping to design a cellular network architecture that allows individuals or organizations to deploy their own networks as easily as they do WiFi routers, where the individual networks can federate with one another to provide mutual roaming; we call this concept “cooperative cellular.” You can read more about dAuth, a software project that adds this functionality to our LTE stack, in this blog post by our lab member Sudheesh.

Current status of the project

In Tacoma, we deployed our first live urban LTE network last Friday with our field partners the Tacoma Cooperative Network (TCN) and Althea.

Althea is a mesh networking technology in which routers blockchain-based micro-payments (in the currency Dai) to pay each other for traffic forwarding. Althea has deployed community wireless mesh networks all over the world, and is interested in integrating with LTE as an access technology. For now, we’ve performed a very simple integration with Althea routers on either side of an LTE network link between the cellular base station and CPE. We hope to conduct site surveys and start connecting homes in the neighborhood within the next few weeks.

In Seattle, we recently received a King County Digital Equity grant to connect underserved areas of South Seattle, particularly targeting as our user group vulnerable adults such as low-income, unemployed, housing-unstable, and primarily non English-speaking residents. We’re working with a number of community organizations, including the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), to help identify and connect us with these potential users.

Meanwhile, we’re looking to partner with as many other organizations as we can in underserved neighborhoods who would be willing to offer roof access to host a network node, or any Internet bandwidth they might be able to contribute to the network (though it’s not a requirement). Given the hilly topography of Seattle, access to roofs and bandwidth in strategic locations will be critical to covering underserved neighborhoods. The UW and City of Seattle have offered to provide some backhaul bandwidth to help carry our network traffic, but we have found that our target areas, especially those where existing cellular coverage is weak, tend to be further from these institutions and their infrastructure, as well as in valleys, behind ridges, or shielded by foliage. For the time being we are still hurting for bandwidth closer to these areas, though with the right wireless relays across rooftops we may be able to get the signal to where we need it.

Finally, we will need plenty of volunteers to help with the “barnraising” effort of network installation, which usually involves some amount of physical construction, cable crimping and wrangling, Linux sysadmin work, and improvisational ingenuity.

Aspirations and Challenges

My personal goal for this project is to firmly ground it in the principles of community engagement and empowerment —for it not to be a charity project but a participatory construction, where local residents and institutions help provide each other access in a collaborative and community-minded way. However, I expect that we will encounter a number of significant social and organizational hurdles throughout the project that we haven’t faced in our deployments before. Community engagement, communication, and social organizing will continue to be a challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has attacked the social bonds and activities that create the very notion of community. It will be a further challenge to build structures that promote mutual accountability and a sense of collaborative responsibility around infrastructure in an urban setting, where infrastructure is more often taken care of by hired outsiders or the powers that be than in a tight-knit rural village. Finally, large urban areas like Seattle tend to have greater diversity of experience, income inequality, and social fragmentation, making it crucial to build cohesive, sustained, and empathetic relationships between people across a multitude of social positions. I believe the project will have to focus on a narrative of empowerment, learning, and growth in order to sustain the interest and participation of those we would most like to reach.

If you’re interested in helping out or joining the network, please contact me via lcl at seattlecommunitynetwork.org , and/or join the project mailing list, seattlecommunitynetwork@cs.washington.edu.

Thanks!

Footnotes

[1] Band 48: a combination of the older bands 42 and 43

[2] Indigenous cultural traditions throughout the world, often preserved and led by elders, are among the most endangered by Covid-19 deaths.

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