Building assets through wireless community networks
The Internet continues to hold great potential for economic advancement and wealth-creation. However, the "digital divide"---barriers to technology access based on race, class, and geography---remains all-too-real for large segments of the population. Though new technologies continue to lower the costs of internet access, it remains prohibitively expensive---if not impossible---for many rural and urban populations to get online.
In 2002, CNT began to develop the idea of using wireless community networks as a community economic development strategy. CNT is establishing pilot projects in the Chicagoland area---in Chicago's Pilsen and Lawndale neighborhoods, and in Elgin, a suburban community forty miles northwest of Chicago---and in a former coal mining town in Southern Illinois, West Frankfort, to deliver very low-cost, high-speed broadband access to homes, small businesses, and community-based institutions. The project takes advantage of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology and an innovative network configuration thus far only deployed by technology hobbyists. CNT envisions wireless networks as an individual and collective asset-building strategy. The network becomes a capacity-building tool for local service providers and community-based organizations to better serve their clients, and a tool for advancing the economic outcomes of entire communities by connecting them to the larger economy. The network also potentially becomes a new community asset---comparable to a park or a school---for a 21st century society in which access to and reliance on real-time information and services will increasingly become the norm.
CNT is working with community partners in each pilot area---Gads Hill Center, Homan Square Community Center Foundation, School District U-46 and John A. Logan College---to develop the networks and related opportunities.
Innovative network model
Traditionally, wireless networks have been limited by what could be called the "hub-and-spoke" model: a central access point is tied to a landline Internet connection which clients communicate with, but other access points cannot "talk" to it wirelessly. Essentially, this means wireless networks were limited by the range of the central access point's signal. These style of networks can work for homes, offices, and other areas of delimited size, but they are not very scalable: that is, they cannot easily grow to service the needs of a wide area like a neighborhood, let alone change to accomodate growth in demand.
WCNs implement a mesh network model that overcomes the limitations of the hub-and-spoke model and allows for theoretically unbounded networks. The key to a mesh network is the ability of access points to associate wirelessly without a landline connection between them. One access point is still needed to connect to the Internet, but the rest need only have access to a power supply and be within range of another access point’s signal. In effect, these access points act like repeaters in a cellular phone network, passing signal along from a user until it reaches the "root" node, or connection to the Internet, in this case.
You can see a comparison of the hub-and-spoke model to the mesh network model below.