Lessons Learned from Grassroots Wireless Networks in Europe

Lessons Learned from Grassroots Wireless Networks in Europe

Gwen Shaffer (California State University – Long Beach, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2997-4.ch013


Grassroots groups in a number of European countries are building Community Wireless Networks (CWN) on small budgets. In underserved regions, CWNs are even surfacing as the principal Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These networks have identified and implemented innovative strategies for providing connectivity—encompassing aspects ranging from software development to infrastructure design and skills training. In other words, these grassroots Wi-Fi networks mobilize human, technical, and financial resources to create sustainable alternatives to telephone and cable companies. This chapter provides an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of these initiatives. The authors use data from action research and interviews with leaders and participants of six successful community Wi-Fi networks in Europe. The findings show that these ad hoc initiatives are forcing local incumbent ISPs to lower prices and alter terms of service agreements. In addition, these projects broaden the public sphere, create opportunities for civic engagement, and transfer knowledge among community members. The chapter suggests that community wireless networks should be fostered by governments and the European Union in order for them to function as true alternatives to conventional ISPs, particularly in the last mile. They conclude the chapter with key learned lessons and policy implications.
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Theoretical Framework

The resource mobilization theory applies economic and organizational concepts to contemporary social movement theory (Meyer, 2005), and considers social movements as augmenting mainstream politics rather than as offering an alternative to them. This approach offers an ideal framework for understanding how peer-to-peer broadband networks emerged and how participants sustain them. The resource mobilization approach emerged as a sub-discipline of social movement theory during the early 1970s, a historic period that bore witness to large-scale protests and high-profile political actions. The Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, along with various groups struggling against colonialism in Asia, Latin America, and Africa (Little, 2008), forced sociologists around the world to adjust the lens through which they studied social movements by explaining the rational, purposive facets of activism (Waterman, 1981). Subsequently, communication scholars began using these concepts to ground their own research. While this approach is not universally accepted, a critical point made by resource mobilization theory is that average citizens would lack the know-how to participate in political action and, thus, must rely on professional advocacy organizations. Therefore, core group members develop a strategy to catalyze the sentiments expressed by those who feel alienated (McCarthy & Zald, 1987). They attract financial and human resources, seize media attention, foster relationships with people in power, and develop an organizational structure (Kendall, 2006; Hannigan, 1985). Resource mobilization theory assumes that a social movement will fail to produce change without adequate resources and alliances (Gamson, 1975; Tilly, 1978; McAdam, 1982).

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