Social Innovation

Can sharing broadband help build cohesive neighbourhoods?

Greta Byrum
Senior Field Analyst, Open Technology Institute
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The high price of broadband service, lack of choice in broadband offerings, and uncertainty about the possible benefits and harms of digital participation continue to keep many US residents — both urban and rural — from digital participation. The problem of low rates of broadband adoption is particularly acute in historically low-income urban neighborhoods.

At the same time, nearby developments such as innovation districts and urban renewal projects often include newly installed telecommunications infrastructure, and are able to purchase bulk bandwidth at low rates. An innovative approach to our cities’ connectivity challenges could be for well-resourced projects and institutions to collaborate with local stakeholders to share broadband connectivity. This approach could support underserved communities without prohibitive investment costs, increase community cohesion, and encourage more equitable economic development.

Following is a guide to cooperative broadband infrastructure sharing for catalytic, equitable, place-based development.

Step 1: Identify Key “Anchor Institutions”

Many urban communities with broadband adoption challenges are also home to strong communities and active grassroots organizations. Traditional “anchor institutions” in a community include schools, libraries, hospitals, and other stable economic engines. Yet many urban areas also have a set of formal and informal institutions that support their communities both financially and socially. These can include corner stores and barber shops in addition to local non-profits and government offices. Local hubs where people congregate to discuss neighborhood issues and share ideas are essential for building bridges to share goods and resources like broadband infrastructure. These are great places to install broadband hotspots, or to serve as the first points in wider neighborhood distribution.

Step 2: Partner and plan

Neighborhood residents need more equitable access to broadband resources and employment opportunities; innovation districts and and urban renewal zones need good neighborhood relationships and a local skilled workforce. These needs and available assets can dovetail with an unorthodox solution: bandwidth sharing via wireless distribution links. This is a less-expensive alternative to what would normally be necessary to increase speed and bandwidth for under-resourced communities — laying fiber-optic cabling to local organizations and neighborhoods. Neighborhood organizers can reach out to developers, agencies, and institutions involved with new construction (or innovation district organizers and developers can reach out to local groups) to build relationships and plan for bandwidth sharing.

Once partnerships are built and solidified with an agreement such as a memorandum of understanding ensuring that all parties share the same expectations, the partners can begin to plan a technical design. Independent ISPs such as Sky-Packets are great resources for building unconventional broadband infrastructure.

Step 3: Implement, document, and communicate

The partners can easily contract out the technical process of installation to a local ISP or other implementer — essentially this only entails putting a few routers up on rooftops. However, it’s important to keep communicating about how things are going and to document and monitor the network. This helps other communities set up similar models, and also helps alleviate problems that might arise around bandwidth use or governance.


Estimated Costs

Wireless Links

The below cost estimate includes two point-to-point wireless links operating within ~3 square miles between a well-resourced development and a local non-profit, enabling the development to share bandwidth. The estimate also includes equipment and installation for indoor coverage at the local non-profit. It represents a one-time capital expense, and does not include the ongoing cost of bandwidth, which could be covered by a well-resourced new development without considerable additional expense.

Equipment Labor Indoor Wireless Coverage $6000 $6000 Backbone Links $5000 $6000 Capacity Upgrade $3000 n/a Total $14,000 $12,000


Fiber-Optic Service

By contrast, the below cost estimate shows what dedicated fiber-optic Internet access would cost the same local non-profit. These are dedicated service lines with high-availability Service Level Agreements.

Installation (one time) Service Charge (Monthly) 100 Megabit Access Between $500 to $1000 Between $1500 to $2500 1000 Megabit Access Between $1000 to $2000 Between $5000 to $10,000 Total From $61,500 to $122,500

Note that for interior wireless coverage at the local non-profit, an additional $12,000 in installation costs would be necessary.


Conclusion and Future Opportunities

This case shows how, with a minimum of financial burden, a “do-it-ourselves” technological intervention can address both digital needs and create a social connection among important anchor institutions. Neither partner is locked into a dependency. If either partner chooses to discontinue the relationship, all equipment can be uninstalled and repurposed.

If the cooperative relationship works well, however, both institutions can agree on terms for its continuation. Adding further links to other neighborhood institutions is also simple, at a much lower price than what is required for this first neighborhood link. This initial partnership can also lay the groundwork for future opportunities for collaboration in other areas, such as workforce development.


Equipment Cost Breakdown

Distribution and Access at Local Non-Profit Institution

User and client access via high-powered 2.4GHz Access Points

Function Manufacturer Model Quant. Cost Item Totals Point-to-multipoint AP Ubiquiti RocketM2-Ti 4 $230 $920 Sector Antennas Ubiquiti AM-V2G-Ti 4 $230 $920 Mounting point (Outdoor) Rohn R-FRM238SP5HC 4 $160 $640 Interior Access Points Ubiquiti UniFi 4 $230 $920 Cable Ubiquiti TC-Carrier 2 $180 $360 Connectors Ubiquiti TC-CON-100 1 $50 $50 Surge Arrestors PolyPhaser 112-0127A 4 $90 $360 Outdoor Enclosure Terrawave TWNC181610S 1 $100 $100 Gigabit Switch Ubiquiti ToughSwitch 8 1 $190 $190 Grounding hardware Miscellaneous $200 $200 Miscellaneous hardware Various $100 $100 Subtotal: $4,760 Shipping / Contingency 20% $952 Total, distribution at Center: $5,712


Backbone Links

Connection to high-speed Metro Ethernet backbone assets

Function Manufacturer Model Quant. Cost Item Totals Point-to-point bridge Ubiquiti PowerBridge M3 2 $380 $760 Mounting point Rohn R-BRM42510 1 $700 $700 Cable Ubiquiti TC-Carrier 0.5 $180 $90 Connectors Ubiquiti TC-CON-100 0.1 $50 $5 Surge Arrestors PolyPhaser 112-0127A 2 $90 $180 Outdoor Enclosure Terrawave TWNC181610S 1 $100 $100 Gigabit Router Ubiquiti ERLITE-3 1 $100 $100 Grounding hardware Various $100 $100 Miscellaneous hardware Various $100 $100 Subtotal: $2,135 Shipping / Contingency 20% $427 Total, one backbone link: $2,562

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Open Technology Institute. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Greta Byrum is an urban planner and a Senior Field Analyst at the Open Technology Institute. Andy Gunn is a field engineer for the Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation.

Image: A woman uses her Apple iPhone while waiting to cross 5th Avenue in New York. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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