A long tale of community broadband

The other day someone asked me why I was sharing my internet service with the rest of the village. I’d started in 2003 with a Hotspot-in-a-box from The Cloud, but learned over time that they considered community access a form of theft.

It’s a story that goes back some 20 years, to when an activist got an invitation to serve as a volunteer on the steering group of Bill Clinton’s re-election committee.

His paper, on a proposed people-centered economic development model had drawn attention to what became known as the digital divide:

The greatest initial social and economic risk of the Information Age is in creating two distinctly different classes of people: the technological haves and have-nots. Those who have access to information and information technology have a reasonable expectation to survive and prosper. Those with limited or no access will be left out. This holds true for individuals as well as nations. The key to the future is access to free flow of information. To the extent that the free flow of information is restricted or diminished, people will be left to endure diminished prospects of prosperity and even survival.

In 2004, he arrived in London to put this model into practice, as a social enterprise with a business plan to tackle poverty, which argued:

While the vast majority of people in poverty suffer quietly and with little protest, it is not safe to assume that everyone will react the same way. When in defence of family and friends, it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world. People with nothing have nothing to lose. Poverty was therefore deemed not only a moral catastrophe but also a time bomb waiting to explode. Poverty reduction and relief became the overriding principle and fundamental social objective in the emerging P-CED model.

Dealing with poverty is nothing new. The question became ‘how does poverty still exist in a world with sufficient resources for a decent quality of life for everyone?’ The answer was that we have yet to develop any economic system capable redistributing finite resources in a way that everyone has at minimum enough for a decent life: food, decent housing, transportation, clothing, health care, and education. The problem has not been lack of resources, but adequate distribution of resources. Capitalism is the most powerful economic engine ever devised, yet it came up short with its classical, inherent profit-motive as being presumed to be the driving force. Under that presumption, all is good in the name of profit became the prevailing winds of international economies — thereby giving carte blanche to the notion that greed is good because it is what has driven capitalism. The 1996 paper merely took exception with the assumption that personal profit, greed, and the desire to amass as much money and property on a personal level as possible are inherent and therefore necessary aspects of any capitalist endeavour. While it is in fact very normal for that to be the case, it simply does not follow that it must be the case.’

We proposed a network of community broadband installations which would be managed as community benefit societies applying 50% of their surplus to community development funds for investment in seeding other social enterprises.

The plan concluded:

UK government intends to make broadband available to 100% of the population by 2005, an objective which cannot be realised by the primary broadband provider in UK , BritishTelecom. Whilst during most of the course of preparing this document BT ma intained the 2005 target, they have now pushed that target to 2006 at the earliest. Even then, it has been conceded that rural customers are likely to have inferior service for years to come. This in turn stands to create a new digital divide between urban users with faster Internet speeds and rural users with slower speeds. P-CED’s plan allows for much faster broadband rollout with broadband speeds immediately equal to or greater than BT’s present offerings.

Service will be available to individuals and community organizations wishing to acquire broadband access, particularly in rural areas where few if any access options are available. With the present complexity of Internet and high bandwidth demands of many web sites, lower bandwidth connectio ns are becoming obsolete. Not only has Internet access become an essential information and communication mode, it has also become sufficiently sophisticated as to require broadband access to provide people with eyes to the world . There is a strong push at government policy level across UK and the EU for full broadband access. Rural locations will continue to be of secondary importance to traditional commercial enterprises providing broadband, yet collectively represent a multi-billion pound per year market. They are merely harder to develop and not as immediately lucrative for conventional commercial schemes as urban centres. Despite concerted government efforts to press broadband into rural areas, these markets are likely to remain underdeveloped for years to come without specific, focussed intervention, particularly in new EU entrants.

Our concerns had proven to be well founded as a group of MPs confirmed more than a decade later.

At the end of 2004, focus shifted toward Ukraine where civil unrest had begun with the Orange Revolution and by 2007, a strategy plan had been delivered to their government.

Included was a proposal for affordable broadband which reasoned:

Ukraine is in urgent need of nationwide high-speed Internet at an affordable cost. This does not exist in Ukraine at this time. Availability of affordable, modern day Internet access is crucial to any nation’s economic development. This is by now a truism and does not need much elaboration. It is enough to understand that nothing whatsoever can happen in terms of social, economic, civic, and political development without communication. To the extent that communication is limited or completely absent, development is equally limited. If demonstration of this is needed, each reader is invited to do the following. For the next week, do not speak, do not write, do not read, do not listen to or access any form of communication in any way. With those restrictions, it might still be possible to survive for a week. Extend the same restrictions indefinitely, and basic survival will be at risk. It is almost impossible to imagine life without communications of any kind.

In most of Ukraine, citizens have about the same degree of connection to the modern world. Information is usually one-way, receive only, by way of television, radio, and newspapers.

The needs for drastically improved communication infrastructure in Ukraine are manifold. We see a democratic political movement in its infancy that will have difficulty in advancing without the same basic and affordable communication infrastructure available in each and every democratic nation in the world. Ukraine does not have this.

We see a nation staggering under the crushing burden of widespread poverty, the extent of which no one is sure but which most people assessing the situation realistically is at least twenty five percent of the population. We understand that communication — particularly high-speed Internet communication at a cost that is affordable to half the population and all businesses — is essential for economic growth and development so that poverty can be reduced.

We see a staggering array of social problems arising directly from poverty, including but not limited to tens of thousands of children in orphanages or other state care; crime; disrespect for civil government because government cannot be felt or seen as civil for anyone left to suffer in poverty; young people prostituting themselves on the street; drug abuse to alleviate the aches and pains of the suffering that arises from poverty and misery; HIV/AIDS spreading like a plague amidst prostitution, unprotected sex, and drug abuse; more children being born into this mix and ending up in state care at further cost to the state; criminals coming from poverty backgrounds, ending up as bandits, returning to communities after prison, with few options except further criminal activity. These are all part and parcel of the vicious negative cycle of poverty, and this threatens to destroy Ukraine, if Ukraine is defined in terms of people rather than mere geographic boundaries. Overall, population is steadily declining; families have not sufficient confidence in tomorrow to reproduce more than 1.2 children on average per couple.

At the very same time, there are excellent minds and people all over the country struggling to alleviate these problems. The communication infrastructure that can most effectively and quickly facilitate these efforts does not exist. Nor are there any serious plans for it. Draconian barriers stand in the way of progress. In Ukraine, people can be fined or jailed for operating simple wi-fi devices, which are common and unlicenced in all democracies and developed nations. In Ukraine, a license to operate a simple wi-fi device is required. Licenses are costly and almost impossible to get through a central-controlled Ministry. These devices hold the promise of rapid, community-wide high-speed Internet deployment from a single point of access, the cost of which can be shared equally among each user.

Moving to the Forest of Dean in 2005, our efforts drew the attention of the Federation of Small Business, leading to an opportunity to discuss collaboration with the economic development officer of the district council. The department was soon disbanded.

It was a council meeting in 2010 on a failed healthcare social enterprise trust, which offered the opportunity to raise the matter 0f collaboration once more. The public reply was to say that the council had no policy to provide support for social enterprise.

BT introduced fibre broadband to Parkend several years ago. In the process they managed to sever the telephone lines leaving half of the village without telephone service.

We learned that a visitor, on holiday with a disabled child required to cut short their stay because of the need to be in regular contact with healthcare providers. Parkend has no mobile phone signal. It stands to reason that when public events like boot sales and the Carnival take place, we may have the need to contact emergency services.

That’s when I decided to install an Open Mesh network. It has two nodes, covering the playing field area and the rear of Folly Road.

Before he died trying to help others, the man who started all this wrote, of social enterprise:

The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

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Jeff Mowatt

Putting people above profit, a profit-for-purpose business #socent #poverty #compassion #peoplecentered #humaneconomy