We believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right and that independent, community-owned and -operated wireless is a sustainable and scaleable means of digital inclusion.
We support net neutrality principles and believe that the Internet should be provided free of throttling, zero-rating, and the tracking and monetization of user behavior.
We believe that people matter more than profit and that the principles of cooperation and mutual aid can grow a fundamentally different kind of digital network.
Finally, we believe in starting small, learning from our mistakes, and inviting the input and perspectives of teachers, organizers, users, and technologists alike in building this network.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a detailed study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that a mere 53% of Black residents and 44% of Latinx residents in Philadelphia have broadband connections (Alvaro 2020). The pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the implications of this digital divide and exacerbated existing inequalities for students, business owners, job seekers, and many others.
We are here to present an alternative model of Internet access, a network based in community input and education. We aim to transform how cities think about the Internet as a utility by involving our users in the construction of the network: from students to business owners, from medical providers to people working from home. This project is a product of the pandemic, but our vision extends beyond the current crisis. We seek a long term, sustainable, and affordable Internet for all in Philadelphia, rather than stopgap measures amid this emergency.
Our goal is to empower the people who have been most exposed to technology’s harms through surveillance and algorithmic bias with critical digital literacies. We will train users in the basic principles of network engineering and digital literacy so that they can be stewards of the technology, rather than merely recipients. PCW will also work to build out the services and activities the network enables, through participatory design and input from the community.
"Roughly $200 can permanently connect a house to high-speed Internet, with no monthly bills."
PCW’s efforts center on mesh networks, a distributed system of network routers which allow a single source of bandwidth to be shared among a broader group of users with very little cost or infrastructure required for connection. Traditional internet service providers rely on a one-way, centralized hub that transmits network traffic to all users on the receiving end. But with mesh networks, every router both receives and transmits network traffic simultaneously, enabling the network to remain operational even when individual nodes go out of service. The technical shape of mesh networks (interconnected, resilient) thus reflect the social connections that PCW seeks to amplify (democratic, participatory, decentralized).
A two-year grant from the Digital Literacy Alliance is enabling us, in the first year, to connect at least 100 homes within a one-mile radius around Norris Square to high-speed internet, at no cost to the users, for at least the next decade (the length of the agreement with our bandwidth provider, PhillyWisper).
The PCW infrastructure will have three distinct layers that we liken to a tree with a trunk, branches, and leaves. Here’s how it works.
The trunk layer consists of anchor antennas that are donated and installed by our partner, PhillyWisper. Each anchor antenna receives a line-of-sight connection from one of the company’s towers, and propagates that signal within a roughly one-mile radius. The PW team has already installed a public access point in Norris Square Park. We are identifying further installation sites at buildings owned by community organizations, located in neighborhoods where 53% of residents have no broadband access.
installed Norris Sq Park Public Wifi
installed West Kensington Ministries
installed Norris Square Neighborhood Project
sites identified Norris Square Community Alliance
in conversation Village of the Arts and Humanities
in conversation Temple University
Around three repeater nodes can be installed around the anchor antenna to boost the “trunk’s” signal. These repeater nodes will be placed as needed, according to any natural interference present at a site, including large buildings and trees. Because each installation will be unique depending on the landscape, we will build this network iteratively. Each installation will teach us more about the network. All that remains is the next infrastructure layer in order to bring that connection into people’s homes.
The “leaves” of the PCW consist of mesh kits donated to community members. Families and individuals living in the vicinity of the anchor antennas will apply to receive free home installation kits, purchased by PCW. The kits consist of an indoor mesh antenna, router, and ethernet cables. This phase of the project will involve community outreach and coordination. The PCW will draw on educational materials, tutorials, and other resources that have been developed for similar hardware by community technology groups like Open Technology Institute, Detroit Community Technology Project, and Community Tech NY.
PCW members have tested these hardware kits in their own homes and have been able to provide connections to several neighbors from one kit. Colleagues in Baltimore at Project WAVES and the Digital Harbor Foundation report that each mesh antenna in the home can provide reliable Internet access to at least the two neighboring row homes on each side of the initial house.
Each kit costs roughly $200 and can connect three homes to the Internet at 25 MB/s speeds for as long as the hardware is plugged in.
We are currently seeking community organizations and building owners in the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods who are willing to host network antennas on their rooftops, and to conduct community outreach about this free network connection.
We seek technologists with experience in network engineering to help install and maintain the network connections.
And we need funding to purchase more hardware that will be donated to community members. Roughly $200 can permanently connect a house to high-speed Internet, with no monthly bills.
Eventually, we would like to foster a number of community-based arts partnerships that encourage people to envision a new internet. What kind of content and what forms of communication do we most desire in Philadelphia?
We are also planning research projects with neighboring Penn, Temple, and Princeton Universities on digital equity and Internet accessibility.