The District of Columbia is trying to bring high-speed internet to more of its residents. But it's much more complicated than anyone imagined.

Preston Rhea is installing routers.

More than 20 wireless routers sit on rooftops in Washington, D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. About a mile away in Mt. Pleasant, eight such routers have already been installed, with plans for an expansion into neighboring Columbia Heights. In each neighborhood, the routers form the basis of a community mesh network—wireless networks openly accessible to residents and supervised by the Broadband Bridge, a D.C.-based organization of which Rhea is a member.

Meanwhile, underground, the D.C. government is in the midst of installing its own high-speed fiber network. When completed in 2013, the $25 million DC Community Access Network (DC-CAN) is expected to provide internet access to 291 community anchor institutions [PDF]—health clinics, schools, and libraries—that offer services to low-income residents.

Both the Bridge and DC-CAN share a similar goal: extend broadband internet to neighborhoods with adoption rates under 40 percent. Oftentimes this means households with incomes under $30,000 a year, as the Pew Internet Project has shown. But where DC-CAN is an open-access, "middle mile" network—something which private providers like Comcast or Verizon could also use to sell internet services to businesses and residences—the Broadband Bridge does "last mile" work by directly connecting households to the internet via a small network of repeaters and additional routers.

What’s the point? City-built middle mile networks will always rely on private internet providers to actually get broadband to customers. Groups like the Bridge instead want to reframe broadband internet as a public good and convince cities to provide the service—which would mean asking government to make those last mile connections to homes and businesses.

"Local governments, they would like to live in a world where they did not have to be responsible for this," says Chris Mitchell, the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Cities don’t want to get involved in offering services directly."

In the middle of the last decade, community WiFi became a cause touted by cities as a means to extend high-speed internet to all, but by and large these projects were a bust. Once local governments realized constructing a complete, virtually free wireless network for everyone’s use required public money—with no chances of a return—they instead just gave private firms permission to set up wireless networks.

The result? WiFi that people either didn’t use (because they already had internet) or couldn’t afford.

Community wireless comes with its own problems. As D.C.'s Broadband Bridge team has learned the hard way, internet access can never be entirely free: in Mt. Pleasant, for instance, two of the eight routers serve as gateways from which residents make available their paid-for internet bandwidth to the other six routers. A splash page with a basic terms of service agreement, much like you’d see in your local Starbucks, is the only insurance against people doing anything illegal through the connection. And WiFi, while suited to distributing broadband internet across swaths of geography—think: college campuses—benefits from the presence of many routers in a limited area to ensure the signal isn’t absorbed or scattered by physical obstacles. Like, you know, houses.

Ensuring affordable, reliable access to the internet “typically means a network that’s owned by the local government or a co-op," Mitchell says. That would mean approaching municipal networks as public works projects, with the city building out the full infrastructure and selling services directly. But doing so would put municipal government in competition with private broadband providers.

Big telecommunications firms, as you might imagine, don’t like this. In North Carolina, Time Warner and CenturyLink lobbied to have a law passed that prevents municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Opponents of such measures argue that this allows companies to make internet access available only where the money for services is—in other words, not in low-income areas with low adoption rates.

City-owned and serviced broadband isn’t unheard of. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the municipally owned Electric Power Board began installing fiber in 2007 to “improve the electric grid’s reliability.” Today, Chattanooga’s EPB sells one-gigabit-per-second internet services to residents and businesses. Public power utilities are responsible for fiber networks in Bristol, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana, as well.

The same could be done with the DC-CAN fiber network, with the city in the business of providing middle and last mile internet access to residents and businesses. According to Mitchell, however, it’s tricky in D.C., since the city "used a lot of assets that belonged to the private sector—conduits that the cable or phone company provided."

As it stands now, the purpose of the network is to enable “last mile provider access at lower-than-commercial rates, to expand broadband choices and hence adoption,” says Don Johnson, who oversees DC-CAN as director of DC-Net within the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. Furthermore, Johnson says, DC-Net has no "control over what the last mile providers choose to charge."

Skeptics like Rhea wonder if that means affordable access will reach low-income residents directly in their homes. Even Google's theoretically altruistic plan to bring low-cost, super-fast broadband directly into homes across Kansas City has come under fire for potentially reinforcing that city's digital divide, rather than alleviating it. Johnson says DC-Net plans to offer incentives to last mile providers selling broadband services to “underserved areas.” As for sharing DC-CAN’s fiber access from community anchor organizations to residents’ homes, Broadband Bridge-style, with wireless routers linking houses in a mesh network? That’s prohibited.

Still, DC-CAN will nonetheless represent a massive leap for a city of D.C.’s size: a 100-gigabit fiber network is nothing to sniff at.

For now, the Broadband Bridge carries on in its rag-tag effort to close the digital divide. A $1,000 grant recently obtained from the Awesome Foundation will help in expanding the Columbia Heights community network.

"The answer isn’t that the more people who buy internet in their homes is better," says Rhea. "The answer is building community infrastructure that everyone can participate in."

Photo credit: zmkstudio/Shutterstock

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