This chapter introduces the role of community wireless networks (CWNs) in reconfiguring people, places and information in cities. CWNs are important for leading users and innovators of mobile and wireless technologies in their communities. Their identities are geographically-bounded and their networks are imbued with social, political and economic values. While there has been much discussion of the networked, virtual and online implications of the Internet, the material implications in physical spaces have been overlooked. By analyzing the work of CWNs in New York and Berlin, this chapter reconceptualizes the interaction between technologies, spaces and forms of organizing. This chapter introduces the concept of codespaces in order to capture the integration of digital information, networks and interfaces with physical space.
For over ten years—since the mainstream adoption of the Internet with the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1995—researchers, businesspeople and policymakers have conducted studies, launched applications, products and services, and implemented new laws related to the virtual, online, digital and networked properties of the information society. However, in this first decade of the Internet’s adoption, the role of physical place has been significantly under-theorized. We are at a turning point. A digital information layer is rapidly expanding throughout the physical spaces of our homes, offices, cities and towns. This digital layer includes mobile and wireless technologies such as WiFi hotspots, municipal wireless networks, cellular networks, Bluetooth headsets, wireless sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. WiFi hotspots can easily be found in coffee shops—including Starbucks—as well as in parks, airports and other public spaces. And, for the past several years, cities across the country and around the world have been planning to build wireless networks.
This chapter analyzes the people and organizations for whom WiFi networks, and the spaces that they inhibit, play an important role. This chapter draws on a four-year network ethnography (Howard, 2002) of community wireless networks (CWNs) and their role in building, using and innovating local infrastructures in the United States and abroad. Specifically, the chapter draws on participant-observation in NYCwireless, a CWN in New York City, which I have represented as a member of the board of directors since January 2005. Network ethnography is an emerging transdisciplinary method that makes use of a wide variety of network data—using new media including e-mail, websites, log data and social network analysis—in order to study communication in organizations (Howard, 2002). In keeping with network ethnography and following Rogers (2006), I have used Issue Crawler,1 a network analysis software developed by GovCom.org in order to better understand the ecology of organizations involved in CWNs. I created a list of the urls of the major community wireless organizations from FreeNetworks.org and ran the Issue Crawler to analyze in-links and out-links. The Issue Crawler is a fast way to create a picture of the network by examining aspects such as the centrality and significance of organizations, the domain names of organizations and the linkages between organizations. This chapter addresses the question: What new socio-technical arrangements and forms of organizing are emerging at the intersection of technology and place?
WiFi networks are interesting for a number of reasons. First, they emerged, like the Internet, somewhat by accident. That is to say, the Internet—invented by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a resilient backup communications network in case of nuclear attack—was not expected to achieve such a widespread commercial success. In a similar way, the technological standard that serves as the basis for WiFi relies on unlicensed electromagnetic spectrum or what is known as the ‘junk band’ to communicate. Second, they translate digital networks onto physical spaces. Third, they are the domain of a diverse group of volunteers, activists and organizations referred to as CWNs. Fourth, WiFi and related technologies are currently at the center of a number of significant business and policy debates. For example, city governments are struggling to identify sustainable business models for municipal wireless networks. And, policymakers are continuing to set guidelines for issues including spectrum regulation, network neutrality, universal access and community media.
This chapter surveys existing literature and presents key theoretical concepts that are useful in analyzing the people, technologies and places that animate the work of CWNs. First, the global network of CWNs is mapped and the organizational structures through which they are linked are presented. Second, examples of mapping and social network applications are offered in order to build the argument that CWNs are lead users and innovators of wireless technologies. These examples also serve to illustrate the ways in which CWNs are reconfiguring people, communities and spaces. Third, two CWNs, NYCwireless in New York, and Freifunk in Berlin, are described in detail. Finally, this chapter concludes with a discussion of future trends and argues that a new theoretical concept—codespaces—is needed to incorporate the integration of digital networks, information and interfaces in physical space. This chapter concludes with a summary of the main arguments presented.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Social Network Analysis: The study of the relationships between people, groups or organizations
Codespaces: The integration of digital networks, information and interfaces with physical spaces
Municipal Wireless Networks: Wireless networks that are initiated by cities, towns and municipalities but that are often built and maintained by private organizations
Network Ethnography: An emerging transdisciplinary methodology that makes use of a wide variety of network data in order to study communication in organizations
WiFi Networks: A network that connects computers to the Internet wirelessly using IEEE 802.11x, which is commonly known as WiFi
Mesh Networks: A decentralized, flexible and redundant network in which each node is connected to every other node
Community Wireless Networks: Wireless networks that are initiated, built and maintained by community groups often in partnership with private, government or non-profit organizations