In June 2010, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DJC) deployed a mesh wireless broadband network in Detroit's North Corktown neighborhood, centered at The Spaulding Court complex on Rosa Parks Boulevard. The DJC's “Hot Mesh” initiative uses open source mesh wireless technology to provide affordable Internet access through a shared communications infrastructure. This rapidly-deployed, ultra-low-cost network is a real-world example of how to use innovative technologies and business models to extend broadband access and strengthen community ties.
Key Partners for Hot Mesh
Anchor residents (lived in coverage area for greater than 5 years) provide local relationships.
Resident technologist helped drive deployment and maintains current network infrastructure.
Community farm, Brother Nature Produce, offers an existing locus for cooperation.
Corktown Residents Association provide a platform for community improvements.
Allied Media Projects and other Digital Justice Coalition members provided additional organizing capacity and public outreach to the surrounding community.
New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative supplied technical support and hardware.
Peer projects such as gowasabi.net, 51Open.org, and CUWiN.net shared implementation and technical lessons from their experiences deploying community wireless networks.
The DJC's overarching goals for the Spaulding Court Wireless Network are to:
Provide residents with low-cost Internet access;
Assess mesh wireless hardware performance in real-world conditions; and,
Advance ongoing, citywide digital justice initiatives
Hardware performance exceeded expectations and deployment was fast and problem-free. In terms of community engagement, familiarity with the technology was not as important a criterion for participation as was a predisposition towards neighborhood collaboration. The key lesson drawn from the pilot project is that success came from devoting the majority of time and resources to community engagement, with technology used as a tool to support this work. Open source mesh wireless networking is an appropriate technology for areas with minimal material resources and a high socialization for sharing — places where civic participation is an objective along with broadband connectivity.
Initial Network at a Glance
Number of Nodes
2x Open-Mesh OM1P 7x Fonera 2100
Total Hardware Cost
5 Square Blocks
Spaulding Court Overview
The 20-unit Spaulding Court housing complex has been a substantial focus of local organizing energy in the past two years. Until recently, it was owned by an absentee slumlord. After a fire damaged the buildings, the landlord refused to sign releases for state assistance or emergency section 8 vouchers, instead demanding continued payment of rent. Conditions deteriorated. Many tenants moved out and a drug den moved in.
In 2009, residents organized to evict the drug den and, in partnership with Young Detroit Builders, boarded up the buildings. In October 2009, neighborhood residents came out to stand watch over the building, concerned that the landlord would try to further destroy the complex under the cover of Devil's Night, the name given to the Detroit tradition of arson on the eve of Halloween. The Corktown Residents Council acquired the building from the City in February 2010 and began to seek redevelopment financing that would include low-cost housing, a community media center, and a bike shop. The courtyard housed a tent city during the US Social Forum (pictured above), one of many set up to accommodate an influx of low-budget visitors attending the conference.
Adjacent to Spaulding Courts is Brother Nature Produce, one of Detroit's hundreds of urban farms and gardens. It offers produce for sale at local markets, organizes educational visits from nearby schools, and hosts a monthly community brunch. Also in the footprint are four permanent residences and an Airstream trailer, separated by empty lots.
Organizing and Installation
“The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition is comprised of people and organizations in Detroit who believe that communication is a fundamental human right. We are securing that right through activities that are grounded in the digital justice principles of: access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities.” – From the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition statement of principles.
The founding members of the DJC are: Allied Media Projects, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Detroit Sierra Club, Hannan House Sound Studio, 5E Gallery, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, the 1440 Collective, the Hush House, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, Real Media, and Urban Neighborhoods Initiative.
With the selected hardware, deployment is a matter of “plug and play.” Total setup time for the Spaulding Court network was three hours with three volunteers participating in the deployment. The speed of the installation was possible because of the open technology being used and because the efforts built on ongoing efforts in the city and neighborhood.
The Spaulding Court network is the latest project of the year-old Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and is integrated into the DJC's ongoing efforts to engage in public education, policy advocacy, collaborative grant proposals, training for new Internet users, refurbishing of computers, and Internet service provision (see timeline of activities below). Project organizers, including local technologist Ben Chodoroff and Allied Media Projects training director Diana Nucera, harnessed volunteer energy from the Allied Media Conference (AMC) and US Social Forum, held in Detroit from June 17-26 to help with implementation. However, the Spaulding Court deployment is the continuation of ongoing efforts rather than the culmination.
At the AMC, Chodoroff facilitated a discussion of mesh wireless technology. Nucera coordinated the conference's media lab, where participants took part in hands-on activities with the mesh wireless routers, including firmware installation and network configuration. Deployment was scheduled during the US Social Forum to provide Internet service to people staying in Spaulding Court and to capitalize on volunteer labor from visitors to Detroit who wanted to contribute lasting infrastructure to the City. A number of technically-knowledgeable people volunteered, including some with direct experience in wireless networking.
The months of organizing by the DJC and other local partners were essential to the success of the deployment. Chodoroff, who lives in the coverage area and hosts one of the nodes, spent many hours discussing the project with his neighbors. He was already known and trusted by local residents as part of a community built up through hyper-local food justice and redevelopment activities. Neighbors in the area had already gotten to know each other through attendance at neighborhood potlucks hosted by the community farm and through the work to reclaim the Spaulding Court complex. When the DJC introduced the idea of a mesh wireless network to the neighborhood, everyone understood Internet service to be an important resource that could be shared.
"The neighborhood network is economical for us. With DSL they want you to get a phone line and with cable they want you to buy a bunch of other stuff. It's kind of impossible to just get Internet: do they even do dialup these days? The mesh is more affordable and it's not my headache alone. I can do stuff for my small business with my computer now."
– Stacey Malasky, North Corktown resident, gardener, graphic designer
The network consists of 9 nodes, 4 of which had been pre-deployed as a testbed and 5 of which were installed in a single afternoon. The nodes are Open-Mesh OM1P and Fonera 2100 routers running a customized version of the open source Open Mesh software. Though all equipment was donated to the project, the approximate cost of each device is $60 and $30, respectively, bringing the total value of the associated hardware to $330.
Even though all of the devices were installed on the interior of buildings, we achieved coverage of approximately 300 linear feet with each radio, at the upper end of laboratory ratings of 150-300 feet. The area had minimal interference: no tall buildings, few trees, and very little radio transmission in the 2.4Ghz (unlicensed Wi-Fi) band. The total coverage area is five neighborhood blocks.
The network supported 25 users while the tent city was in place. Since the close of the tent city, usage has decreased to roughly a dozen residents. Average transfer speed for users is 4.5Mbps download and 0.5Mbps upload. Throughput on the network is currently limited by the gateway nodes' bandwidth and the number of hops, though the maximum node-to-gateway hops is currently two. Connectivity to the Internet is via two DSL connections and one cable modem connection, all of which were in place prior to deployment. The total monthly cost of these services is between $40 and $60 per month. Those connections are now shared with Spaulding Court, an additional nearby residence, and the surrounding public green spaces. They also provide redundancy to everyone on the network, so if one residence loses or turns off service, everyone will still be able to get online. Additional testing is still needed to determine the maximally efficient setup for connecting the network to the Internet.
Detroit Digital Justice Coalition Timeline of Activities
Allied Media Projects and the Open Technology Initiative convene Detroit meeting to discuss local community technology needs and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.
September – November 2009
AMP leads process to develop digital justice principles and conducts participatory needs assessment.
Digital Justice Coalition holds DiscoTech "Discovering Technology" event to share skills and gather survey responses.
DJC releases Digital Justice Principles and publishes Digital Justice Zine issue #1.
January – March 2010
Develops BTOP proposals in partnership with Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion and Michigan State University.
Sets up North Corktown wireless testbed.
Launches survey for Detroit area teachers.
Conducts lobbying visit on Open Internet to Representative John Conyers.
Due diligence for BTOP applications.
Published Digital Justice Zine issue #2.
Letter to Representative Conyers to thank him for stance on Open Internet.
Presentation, caucus and workshop at Allied Media Conference.
Installation of Spaulding Court wireless network during US Social Forum.
The current scale of the Spaulding Court network is stable, though a reduction in Internet service costs would make it more affordable for all involved. The Open Mesh system offers a straightforward interface, but the network will require occasional upkeep as it grows larger. Achieving true community ownership will require further training and education for local residents. The DJC is compiling and producing teaching materials to explain key concepts such as unlicensed spectrum and mesh networking. It is learning from other community wireless projects in the metro area.
The DJC is examining the cooperative business models adopted by local farms and gardens, as well as those of other neighborhood wireless networks as a possible long-term solution. The group is also looking to this community for additional loci of neighborhood collaboration that could potentially adopt mesh wireless networks. To that end, members of the DJC are currently prototyping a soil-monitoring application that would appeal to community farmers. They are investigating the potential for air monitoring, which would connect deployment efforts with environmental justice activism focused on the Detroit incinerator.
The DJC is using the initial success of the Spaulding Court Network to expand Hot Mesh to local businesses and other Detroit neighborhoods, and to generate further momentum for its education and organizing efforts. In part due to the exposure from the Allied Media Conference and US Social Forum, communities across the country are interested to learn from this Detroit model. Additional project documentation and meeting opportunities will facilitate this translocal collaboration.
Joshua Breitbart is the Senior Field Analyst for the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative and a board member of Allied Media Projects. Benjamin Chodoroff is a 25-year-old Detroiter. As a web developer and technologist, he works closely with Allied Media Projects and other Detroit organizations. Two years ago, he founded Thermitic, a web development consulting company.
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