The Ecology of Community Networking by Richard Lowenberg

Santa Fe collectively pays $100 million per year on aggregated telecommunications services (phone, cable,wireless, satelllite, Internet). Richard Lowenberg points to community economic benefits that would accrue if 1% were re-allocated to community technology services. …

The Ecology of Community Networking

As a best practice, the way we think about and pursue our network connected lives should be considered, along with all other aspects of community-building, within a complex, dynamic, whole ecosystems approach, so that it may serve as one of the means by which the concepts of sustainable ‘community of practice and community of learning’ are realized and exemplified.

Unless an ‘intentional community’ determines that it wants to be un-connected, it will currently want to plan and deploy a ubiquitous fiber optic and wireless networking infrastructure, with symmetric, high-bandwidth fiber connection to all premises (institutions, businesses, residences), along with high quality mobile devices service coverage.  How this is engineered and implemented in detail, will vary widely.  Technologies, standards, services and business models will continue to evolve, driven largely by evolving social and technical understandings, and the by forces of ‘consumerism’.

Scale is a critical consideration when planning any aspect of a community or of networks.   Personal networks and neighborhood networks interconnect with city, regional and global networks, now being built, operated and provisioned primarily by large telecommunications companies.   While ‘network neutrality’ is now getting a lot of media buzz, we are actually experiencing another wave of corporate media consolidation, the impacts of which are not favorable to the public interest.

Municipalities are beginning to invest in and build civic networks, in part to reduce spending on network services and to generate new income.   Not all municipalities are capable of or good at managing and operating such networks.    Those that are, most often already operate other municipal utilities, such as for water or electricity.

Community networks present the opportunity, as with renewable energy, local agriculture, community currency and other efforts to vitalize localism, to consider alternate economic and organizational models.   Two key concepts are important to understand: ‘open’ and ‘commons’.

Open networks are those where fiber infrastructure and RF spectrum is owned by the public sector, or by cooperating public and private sector partners, who lease wholesale access and capacity to all providers; as opposed to the current less-than-competitive, proprietary access models.  Open networks can offer subscribers greater competitive choice, reduced pricing and interoperability of devices.

The commons can be applied to our networked environment in same ways as to watersheds, parks or wild lands, or even whole neighborhoods.   The EM (RF) spectrum, while essentially a public (global-universal) commons, like other ‘common pool assets’, is currently treated as private property, being auctioned off to highest bidder companies, that package and rent use thereof back to us, for their stockholders’ profit.

In 2009, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to the developer of fiber optics, and the Economics prize was awarded for the first time to a woman, Elinor Ostrom, for her work on economic and governance structures for ‘common pool assets’. 

Very few ‘experts’ or others think about our information environment within an inter-dynamic ecological understanding of matter, energy and information.  Ecological economics extends this fundamental understanding to the re-framing and application of ‘the dismal science’: economics.

Like all other life forms, we are ‘tuning organisms’, entrained to dominant forces and signals that envelop and permeate us.   We exist, bathed in a cosmic, life-giving shower of electromagnetic radiation, and in the last century, have learned to ‘ride the waves’, by creating ‘techne’ to extend our sensing and communicating abilities in evolutionarily transformative ways.   As with the harnessing of energy and the development of industrialism, we are generating everything from valuable resources to waste.   In ecological terms, waste in the information environment is both material (rare earth mining, obsolete tech junk, warfare) and immaterial (information overload, confusion, deception, speed).   Truth, openness and creativity are among the immaterial value-added qualities of information.

The flow of networked information, learning and knowledge, much like water irrigating our fields, is radically transforming all human processes and social constructs, from governance, to education, to commerce, science, religion, community and family, to war and peace.

Copper wires having provided the means of transport of electrons for the last 100 years, are now being replaced by fiber optic lines which transport photons (light) at high speed and bandwidth capacity.   Most wireless systems utilize radio frequency (RF) portions of the EM spectrum.  New technology developments are beginning to utilize frequencies in the visible light spectrum for some wireless communications, thereby lessening RF spectrum congestion, while promoting more energy efficient, dual-use lighting systems (LEDs), and alleviating some growing concerns about possible health effects of RF signals, a path that is ripe for ‘clean and green’ development.

Today’s ‘broadband’ phase of networked society development is focused largely on technologies, infrastructure, ownership and control.   What really matters though, is how we use broadband networks, especially to improve the quality of our lives and livelihoods.   Localism and a vibrant public media initiative is an important part of growing contemporary community and augmenting other forms of interpersonal exchange and relationship.

A community network must be city-wide, and should be planned as such.   City of Santa Fe has no overarching telecommunications master plan, and though recommended since the coming of the Internet, has not been able to manifest a community-centric public networking initiative.

A community network would ideally be a cross-sector organizational partnership among cooperating local entities: government, school districts and higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, large and small businesses, private sector telecommunications providers and individuals.  It could provide shared local peering, network operations and a data center, lease wholesale broadband network access, provide subsidized accounts (via ISP partners), offer classes and education outreach, initiate ‘pilot projects’, provide expertise and serve as an online front-end, content and applications manager for the community.

Community networks should not compete with private sector companies to provide commercial services, but should partner with willing telecommunications companies and ISPs to offer public information services, for government, education, libraries, healthcare, arts, economic development and public safety.   They could provide participatory, community-centric content management, multi-lingual and cultural services, decision-support tools, mapping, simulation and modeling capabilities, increasing numbers of mobile applications, innovation R&D, as well as support services for life-long online teaching and learning, and tele-work.

Financially supporting such efforts is not easy.   However, if properly organized and structured, a community networking initiative can be sustained and may even thrive, its economic life based as much on earned income as on cost savings to partners and the community.

Individuals, households, businesses and institutions in the City of Santa Fe, currently spend over $100 million per year on aggregated telecommunications services (phone, cable, wireless, satellite, Internet).   Most of this expenditure leaves the state.   If only 1% of this total were to be re-allocated and re-invested in well considered and agreed ways, we could meet our networked requirements and desires in a few years time, without need for any additional funds. 

Commitment and coordination are key to all aspects of community building, including broadband networking.   Integrated, strategic master planning is a must.   Broadband infrastructure deployments should be coordinated with new ‘smart energy grid’ developments, water systems, transportation, and right of ways.    Whenever street or road construction or new building projects disturb the ground or do trenching, we should put in open conduit.   Cities should institute ‘dig once’ ordinances, for public safety, to minimize disruptions, and for practical cost effectiveness and savings.

Good planning, coordination and public processes can result in win-win financial outcomes for telecommunications providers and for the community.   It can result in improved location and engineering of wireless towers, antennas and coverage areas, while mitigating unwanted impacts.   Application of the ‘precautionary principle’ could result in limiting wireless signals in elementary schools, in setting aside electromagnetic ‘quiet zones’, or in location of free WiFi coverage areas as a civic amenity.

How we move forward on our networked future path, requires that we all take greater responsibility for understandings, intentions and actions, while practicing a personal sense of ‘information ecology’.   Not easy, but one of our many grand challenges and opportunities in this creative ‘city different’.

Democracy (people power) + information + learning = Demosophia (people wisdom).

Resource Links:

1st-Mile Institute: NM broadband initiatives and email list

Santa FeRegional Telecom Coalition: e-Cequia open fiber network

Slow Tech essay:

Richard Lowenberg is a multi-forms artist, tele-community planner and eco-systems designer.   He is Senior Broadband Planner with Design Nine, Inc.; is Director of the 1st-Mile Institute; and is on Boards of Parallel Studios/Currents New Media Festival, and of the Santa Fe Complex.  Richard led the Telluride Institute’s InfoZone, the first rural community Internetwork project; directed the Davis Community Network (CA); was a co-author of the National Research Council study and publication, “Broadband: Bringing Home the Bits”; developed the New Mexico “Integrated Strategic Broadband Initiative” plan for the Governor’s Office in 2008; and has been involved with New Mexico broadband stimulus funded projects since 2009.

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