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Communities address internet inequality

By Jonathan Yue Dec. 9, 2020

The San Jose Unified School District has offered technical assistance to students, distributing hotspots for those who need assistance with their internet connections. This is in line with the increasing prevalence of community-based service providers instead of commercial ones.

There is no doubt that the internet is vital to the modern world. The internet sector alone was responsible for 10.1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 2018, according to the Internet Association. The reliance on the internet only intensified due to the COVID-19 pandemic—Stanford researchers found that 42 percent of the U.S. labor force now works from home full-time.

However, not all Americans have access to high-speed internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that at least 25 million Americans lack broadband connection. Many experts attribute this to the lack of competition large internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Charter Communications face: approximately 96 percent of the population only has access to at most two wireline providers, according to The National Broadband Plan laid out by the FCC. Without pressure from local competitors, such service providers can force customers to settle for spotty connections at steep prices, creating “internet inequality.”

Without pressure from local competitors, such service providers can force customers to settle for spotty connections at steep prices, creating “internet inequality.”

To work around the large companies, communities have set up their own neighborhood internet services. Many such programs utilize mesh networks: instead of paying for a monthly subscription to a corporate service provider, individual nodes such as antennas or routers serve as access points and connect to other nodes without passing through commercial ISPs. This model has the advantage that the infrastructure is community-owned, allowing local residents, instead of a corporation, to have control over how the internet is used or distributed.

One such example is People’s Open, a community-based wireless network based in Oakland, California. It has over 40 nodes in the San Francisco Bay Area, sharing paid subscriptions with unconnected neighbors. Users can purchase routers, or request routers for free if they cannot afford the product. After installing routers with appropriate software, users use them to join networks. Similarly, NYC Mesh distributes wireless bandwith to provide free coverage for residents of New York City. The organization has 561 antennas on rooftops or balconies as active nodes. Both People’s Open and NYC Mesh depend on user or community donations to cover their operation and installation costs.

Given increased demand for high-speed connections, engineers, local activists and government officials have convened together to create community internet services that fill the gap corporations have left behind—an effort that will hopefully extend beyond quarantine.


About the Contributor

Jonathan Yue

School News Editor

Jonathan Yue is a senior and is the Front Page and School News editor. He likes solving math problems and is an avid bridge player. He wishes to share his interest in bridge with other students.

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