Like many new things in Bloomingdale, the plan to create a neighborhood-wide free wireless Internet cloud involves Big Bear Café at 1st and R streets NW. But where the café’s liquor license fight highlighted divisions within the gentrifying neighborhood, this plan began with a whiskey-fueled conversation about how to transcend them.
“A few neighbors sitting around the café saw that there was a communications gap,” explains Hugh Youngblood, a tech entrepreneur who has since taken over café owner Stuart Davenport’s seat on the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. If they could at least get everyone access to a popular neighborhood e-mail list, they reasoned, that would go a long way toward filling the digital void.
The problem: Though Big Bear hosts laptop-toting hordes, many neighbors lack home Internet access. The relatively simple fix: With a few dozen routers at $60 apiece—and access to the city’s fiber optic network—Youngblood et al could create a Wi-Fi cloud around 1st Street NW. “We just said, let’s start giving away free Internet,” Youngblood remembers.
The actual process was a bit trickier. At first, they tried to put a signal tower on top of McKinley Technical High School in nearby Eckington, but that was deemed unworkable. Then they thought they might be able to do it from Dunbar Senior High School on New Jersey Avenue NW, but security concerns led the city to offer only a tiny trickle of bandwidth—not enough for the Big Bear crew to wire a whole neighborhood.
Finally, the group gave up on city assistance, turning to a local IT company that could get them a commercial broadband subscription. They set up “gateway” routers at Big Bear and in Rustik Tavern and then started knocking on doors to ask whether homeowners wouldn’t mind hosting a free “repeater.” For a few hundred dollars in hardware and about $800 a year for broadband, a six-block long stretch of houses now has WiFi access—for much less than the cost of individually subscribing each area household to Verizon or Comcast.
For Youngblood, wiring the neighborhood is worth it because of what he can then build on top: Through his company, Youngblood Capital Group, he hopes to develop a “smart grid” in the area that could support things like solar energy systems. “You build the network, and then you’ve got this fertile field you can grow everything in,” he says.
In the not-too-distant future, however, groups like the one in Bloomingdale may not have to pay Comcast or Verizon at all. Last year, the city received a $17.4 million in federal stimulus money for a fiber optic network designed not for the city government but for the public at large. Such grants were sprinkled around the country as part of the Obama administration’s broadband initiative, but most are in rural areas. D.C. will be the biggest city to build its own consumer-oriented network.
The catch? The D.C. Community Access Network (DC-CAN) will be what’s called a “middle mile” network, which is just a central communications backbone. Private businesses and non-profits, from large cable companies to grassroots initiatives like Bloomingdale’s Broadband Bridge, are supposed to provide the “last mile,” which brings the Internet to consumers.
That makes DC-CAN the first meaningful opportunity to break the Comcast-Verizon duopoly that’s governed broadband communication in the District since Uncle Sam and the courts allowed big carriers to run small providers out of the market. But DC-CAN, scheduled for completion in 2013, is going to need some entrepreneurial moxie: So far, the big two haven’t expressed interest in participating, and only five relatively small companies answered the District government’s request for information on the network.
“Right now they’re in the stage of, if we build it, would you come?” says Martha Huizenga, a partner at one of those companies, the independent Capitol Hill- and Dupont Circle-area provider D.C. Access. “And we’re like, ‘Yes, we will come, but at the right price.’”
This isn’t the District’s first attempt to create a municipally-supported wireless network to help low-income residents. The last such plan, alas, failed before it started. In 2006, then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration asked companies to bid for the right to build commercial wireless transmitters on District-owned streetlights and buildings—with permission to access D.C.’s own fiber optic network. Winners, though, would be obliged to offer free wireless services in needy neighborhoods. Nobody even bid, and the plan died.
Williams’ effort came as municipal wireless schemes were flopping nationwide. Private carriers tapped to build systems in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia found the projects to be much more complicated and expensive than they had anticipated. As telecom giants put out research attacking city-supported consumer broadband systems as anticompetitive, local governments abandoned Wi-Fi ambitions. Other critics speculated that, in a business like Internet service, government programs would never be able to adapt to rapid year-to-year changes in technology.
But another District-run wireless effort shows the city is no slouch in that category. DC-NET, a six-year-old high-speed fiber optic system for public institutions, has earned a stellar reputation, winning a national award last year for city broadband networks. It’s good enough that the federal Office of Personnel Management pays the District to use it—a rare example of the feds purchasing anything from the D.C. government—and still saves money over the commercial carriers.
The big companies, though, are still serious competition. In a competitive bid process, the national nonprofit group One Economy chose Comcast over DC-NET as the provider on a $1.2 million, federally-funded effort to provide wireless Internet services for 1,500 District public housing units. Residents who subscribe will pay nothing for the first two years, and then $10 per month after that.
Meanwhile, the city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer says it has no money to fund projects like Bloomingdale’s in other areas. A similar effort in Anacostia, for instance, is still waiting for someone like Youngblood to step up and foot the bill. Not every neighborhood has a benevolent resident entrepreneur and legions of bloggy types who feel entitled to Wi-Fi in bed.
Fortunately, these kinds of projects are set up to thrive without government watering: The more invested communities are in creating their wireless cloud, which requires neighbors to know each other and work together, the longer they’re likely to last. For that reason, the New America Foundation, which has been a cheerleader for community wireless projects, sees them as superior to any kind of subscription service, hosted by telecoms or not.
“The Internet is not something that people should have to sign up on,” says the foundation’s Preston Rhea. “The Internet is something that people can actually help produce and create.”