Banding together for bandwidth: An analysis of survey results from wireless community network participants
First Monday

Banding together for bandwidth: An analysis of survey results from wireless community network participants by Gwen Shaffer

Using a resource mobilization framework, this study attempts to better understand the factors motivating people to join organized wireless community networks that enable members to share bandwidth. In addition, the research illuminates ties between this kind of peer–to–peer networking and civic engagement at a broader level. An in–depth survey completed by 43 respondents from throughout Europe and North America found that participants in this movement felt a stronger sense of community, as well as were more likely to help elect local politicians and to work on local issue campaigns, after joining WiFi sharing initiatives. The study concludes with proposed policy recommendations — geared toward regulators, local elected officials, broadband activists, and Internet service providers.


Resource mobilization theory applied to mesh networks
Research questions and survey methodology
Recommendations for federal policy–makers



The expectation for ever-present broadband connectivity is growing along with the proliferation of “always–on” mobile devices such as PDAs, laptops and cell phones. The International Telecommunications Union (2007) predicts people worldwide will soon live in “ubiquitous network societies,” where interconnected appliances and devices provide relevant content and information whatever the location of the user. While some public spaces currently offer wireless Internet, broadband subscribers typically lose guaranteed connections each time they leave their access points. One increasingly popular solution, shared broadband signals, relies on a model of peer–to–peer networking. Instead of information passing from “one to many,” it may travel from “many to many” [1]. This form of viral networking is taking hold at the grassroots level of media activism, as well as within the realm of venture capitalism.

The connection between deploying ubiquitous broadband in marginalized communities and expanding the public sphere for these populations is fairly straightforward. Internet access brings with it exposure to new ideas, to social connections, to professional development and to educational opportunities (Internet for Everyone, 2009; Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 2009; Windhausen, 2008; Sandvig, 2004; McChesney and Podesta, 2006). What is less clear is how broadband activists themselves are affected when they partake in efforts to expand Internet connections to disenfranchised residents.

This study attempts to shed light on this question. The research is based on survey responses from members of both for–profit and grassroots WiFi sharing communities throughout Europe and North America. These initiatives are distinct from open access hotspots commonly found in cafes and bookstores. They are organized networks created and maintained by volunteers. In order to gain a better understanding of motivations behind joining a wireless community network, the questionnaire asked network members about their online activity, concerns related to participation, and newly created opportunities for civic engagement. The study explores whether peer–to–peer networking can foster “spontaneous linkages that create community” (Burnett, 1999) and build social capital through information sharing. According to the survey responses, a significant number of participants became increasingly active in local politics and community issues after joining a mesh network. The survey also attempts to generate a clearer understanding of why people opt to share their bandwidth with strangers in the first place. Motivations for doing so, according to the questionnaire responses, are evenly split between altruism and personal gratification. These findings serve as the basis for proposed policy recommendations–geared toward regulators, local elected officials, broadband activists, and Internet service providers.

Communication research suggests that not only are people living in areas with Internet access more likely to be involved in their communities, they are more satisfied with their communities (Dutta–Bergman, 2005). Low–cost Internet access made available through community WiFi networks may possess the potential to further public good goals by generating social ties for network members and promoting technical knowledge (Sandvig, 2004). These grassroots WiFi co-operatives function on the same principle as telephone co–operatives that formed in rural America prior to 1940 — when commercial phone companies neglected to provide service to sparsely populated communities and stakeholders adapted technology to meet their own goals. As Forlano (2008) points out, WiFi networks reshape existing physical and architectural boundaries by permeating walls, seeping into public spaces, and shaking up established notions of both privacy and space. Because ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity enables users to time–shift–surfing the Web and checking e–mail from unconventional spaces, whenever it fits into their routines — they may consume more diverse news and political information, as well as better maintain social connections (Hampton, et al., 2010).

The rise of peer–to–peer networking

Benkler (2005) points out that a “tremendous amount of excess capacity” [2] is routinely deployed throughout the U.S. communication infrastructure. In fact, the typical Internet subscriber uses less than two percent of his or her personal bandwidth limit (Francis, et al., 2006; Meraki, 2008). The best way to capture this capacity and create a “survivable infrastructure … is through improving the conditions for social sharing and exchange of the excess capacity users own” [3]. This type of sharing functions on a model of redistribution that is costless to the giver, in contrast to financial transactions within the commodities market. Mesh networks, which are created by users themselves, grow virally. In a viral communications architecture, components are both “independent” and “scalable,” and “each new element adds capacity to the system” [4]. A wireless mesh network design includes at least one access point with a direct connection to the Internet — via fiber, cable or satellite link — and nodes that hop from one device to the next. As the popularity of these networks grow, new users add nodes. As a result, signals have shorter distances to hop and more redundancy is built into the network, ultimately strengthening it (Rowell, 2007). Therefore, traditional telecommunication companies, predicated on a central infrastructure with a finite capacity (MIT Communications Futures Program, 2008), are much less necessary for one to acquire online access. As Lippman and Reed [5] have observed, “Communications can become something you do rather than something you buy.”

In 2001, the mass popularity of the music application Napster kicked off the file–sharing movement, which substantially impacted how people used the Internet. Once a new label, such as peer–to–peer networking, is applied to an emerging phenomenon, “it invariably begins shaping — and possibly distorting — people’s views” [6]. This study goes one step further and defines peer–to–peer networking as an actual social movement, and as the likely next phase of media activism. Users have acquired the ability to generate content with basic equipment and knowledge; they now need the means to disseminate that content. This do–it–yourself ideology is evidenced by slogans that encourage users, “Don’t log onto the net — be the net!” (Funkfeuer, 2009). Similarly, the router company FON (2008) characterizes its bandwidth sharing service as “a Movimiento of people building a free, global WiFi community,” despite that the company is driven by profit motives.

More than a dozen non–profit wireless community networks in the United States utilize mesh technology to expand broadband access. DFWFreeNet in the Dallas–Ft. Worth area; Personal Telco in Portland, Ore.; Shadyside Wireless in Pittsburgh; and, Wireless Ypsilanti in Michigan are all examples of grassroots initiatives that promise free Internet access through bandwidth sharing. Grassroots groups in a number of European countries are building large–scale public telecommunication infrastructures on extremely small budgets. In underserved regions, wireless community networks 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 infrastructure design to skills training. Among the more established networks are in the countryside near Barcelona; Freifunk in Berlin; Funkfeuer in Vienna; and, Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network in Greece. Start–up companies FON and Whisher have also introduced for–profit broadband network models during the past few years.

Incumbent ISPs require each customer to sign a terms of service agreement. In the United States, these contracts include a provision barring subscribers from attaching any devices to their modems that would make it possible to share bandwidth outside the premises. Participants in U.S. community mesh networks are, of course, challenging these policies by developing and distributing technology that enables multiple people to share a single ISP connection. The wireless signal sharing movement is made possible by the skills, connections and financial assets supplied by its supporters. Additionally, people who share WiFi signals are often driven by ideology as much as pragmatism. For these reasons, resource mobilization theory serves as an appropriate framework for this research.



Resource mobilization theory applied to mesh networks

Stöber (2004) observed that progress in both society and the media often grow out of frustration with the “cultural and social, political and legal, economic and technical status quo.” While this observation rings true, frustration must be coupled with resources to spur advancements. Resource mobilization theory — a paradigm that applies economic and organizational concepts to contemporary social movement theory — emerged as a sub–discipline of sociology during the early 1970s. This 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 struggles against colonialism in Asia, Latin America, and Africa (Little, 2008), forced scholars around the world to adjust the lens through which they studied social movements by explaining the rational, purposive facets of activism (Waterman, 1981). A Marxist interpretation of the protests and social unrest dominating the 1960s and early 1970s assumed social movements were the “manifestation of the contradictions of capitalism” [7]. These scholars presumed a shift in values had bumped against a static value system — which led citizens to challenges the establishment. The contradictions of American capitalism explain the source of the conflict, but fail to explain how mobilization actually occurred.

Resource mobilization theorists, a group that includes communication scholars, are interested in questions related to the actual operation of advocacy organizations. Their definition of resources extends beyond the “classic land, labor and capital” [8] to encompass ties to policy–makers, technical skills and commitment. Analyses consider the costs and benefits associated with social movement organizations — from their leadership structures to their tactics (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991; Tilly, 1978). Scholars who examine social movements through this framework believe that successful campaigns must foster alliances between grassroots actors and the establishment, such as political parties and government agencies, as well as seize media attention (Gamson, 1975; Tilly, 1978; McAdam, 1982; Kendall, 2008; Hannigan, 1985).

Despite the truly grassroots nature of peer–to–peer community networks, many activists behind them maintain access to the media and relationships with policy–makers. The founders of non–profit signal sharing initiatives, the core of this movement, typically boast technology and IT knowledge. In fact, they are in a position to mobilize only because they have acquired these resources. While peer–to–peer networks aim to provide Internet access to disenfranchised community members, elite participants in the movement certainly benefit, as well. Active members of signal–sharing communities are linked through shared convictions that include creating ubiquitous connectivity, expanding digital inclusion, and driving change in the telecommunications industry. Finally, some broadband subscribers open their wireless signals for ideological reasons. These actors intend to make a political statement by defying the rules. Still, the question arises: Why do people join social movements when they can, much more easily, exploit the work of others willing to bear the costs of achieving a common good? What are the incentives to contribute rather than free–ride (Olson, 1965)? An explanation is necessary because the costs of fighting for a cause are obvious. Activists routinely sacrifice time, money, and even personal safety for the sake of an entire community.

Olson (1965) argues that without “selective incentives” to entice actors to join a social movement, they will simply free–ride on the efforts of others working to achieve public benefit. Therefore, actors will participate only when they determine that the potential collective goods — from which they will personally benefit — are worth more than the cost of participation (Zald and McCarthy, 1987). While broadband activists express an ideological commitment to closing the digital divide, it is a personal interest in technology that, often, initially draws them to the movement. Other actors perceive mobilizing as a conduit for aggregating resources and, ultimately, ensuring the movement’s efficiency. Fireman and Gamson (1979) suggest that two precise dynamics must operate. One mechanism must act through participants’ loyalty to a group, while another mechanism must act through personal convictions.

Resource mobilization theorists explain that with movement/countermovement interactions, one side attempts to drive social change by influencing policy (Peckham, 1998), while the opposing perspective fights to maintain the status quo. Many grassroots broadband advocates view themselves and their peers as agents of change. If they can demonstrate to policy–makers that organized bandwidth sharing has social value — in terms of closing the digital divide and fostering community — the social movement will achieve its goals. On the other side, incumbent ISPs strive to discredit wireless community networks, arguing that their members steal resources from paying customers and violate terms of service agreements. The ISPs are in the position of power, as they control resources and, through their massive lobbying arms, help develop regulations. Much of the motivation behind the media democratization movement derives from the historical process facilitating the commodification and concentration of corporate media (Buechler, 2002). Non–corporate actors, who are locked out, are acting on their frustration by mobilizing and drawing attention to the decidedly non–democratic telecommunications industry.

Of course, resource mobilization is not universally accepted. Critics contend that this sub–discipline of social movement theory deemphasizes the complex nature of grievances, as well as minimizes the role that ideology plays in social movements. They point out that informal actors and networks, not just those who are highly organized, participate in social movements (Piven and Cloward, 1991). Additionally, because the resource mobilization approach pays minimal attention to the inequality inherent in power relationships, as well as downplays historical and “big picture” issues, the framework’s usefulness is limited (Buechler, 2000; Canel, 1997; Kendall, 2008). New social movement theorists, most notably Touraine (1981), criticize the resource mobilization approach for defining actors by their strategies, as opposed to by key social relationships.

With resource mobilization theory in mind, this study explores the questions raised in the following section.



Research questions and survey methodology

This research aims to gain a deeper understanding of a complex phenomenon — the potential for peer–to–peer signal sharing to expand digital inclusion in the United States. As a result, the following research questions emerged:

RQ1: What motivates people to “steal” wireless signals or share their own? Does this new opportunity to access the Internet impact civic engagement levels?

RQ2: What policy reforms could facilitate the use of mesh technology for digital inclusion efforts?

In order to obtain a broad range of perspectives, an online survey was distributed to participants in this movement. This method is ideal for collecting original data, both descriptive and explanatory, about a large population (Babbie, 2004) such as members of mesh communities. The survey asked about 30 questions, many of which attempted to identify the factors motivating participants to share WiFi signals. Questions also sought to explore ties between participating in a wireless community network and civic engagement at a broader level. Specifically, the survey explored whether people become more active in community and national politics — as well as other forms of civic engagement — after joining a mesh network. The survey also asked about concerns regarding broadband reliability and security; attitudes toward incumbent telecommunication companies; and unauthorized use of wireless signals. Finally, the survey solicited demographic information from respondents.

In order to disseminate the survey to a targeted audience — that is, only people who participate in signal sharing communities — the author posted a link to more than a dozen relevant online forums, blogs and social networking sites between 2 June 2008 and 31 December 2008. Specifically, the link was posted on 17 Web sites hosted by WiFi signal sharing communities including Wireless Ypsilanti, SoCalFreeNet, Portland’s Personal Telco and Richmond Wireless. The author also posted the survey link on 10 relevant blogs and networking forums including those hosted by FON and WiFi Planet, as well as on the OneWebDay site, the Mac User Forum, and various local Craigslist sites. According to the tracking feature on SurveyGizmo software, about 610 people opened the link to the online questionnaire. However, just 43 WiFi community network members — representing initiatives in both North American and European cities — completed the form in its entirety. Only complete questionnaires were analyzed for this article. As a result of this limited sample size, the results cannot be considered entirely representative of people who participate in the peer–to–peer networking movement. However, these responses do provide insight into many diverse aspects of ad hoc initiatives. They also offer a detailed snapshot of the motivations and influences regarding one particular subset of mesh community members. Finally, these responses serve as valuable guidance for the policy recommendations laid out later in this paper.




In this section, the survey findings are organized according to themes. Broadly, these include demographic information about participants in the ad hoc networking movement; motivations for participation; how participants use wireless Internet technology; and, concerns about mesh networks.

Network members: Male, educated and working in IT

The demographics of survey participants varied in terms of age and education levels, but were otherwise homogeneous. Of the 43 survey respondents who identified their gender, all but three were male. Given the historical status of women in IT, this response is not entirely surprising. Women only began to pursue careers dealing with information systems in the early 1980s and, even then, the demands of motherhood, as well as social and structural factors, held them back (Ahuja, 2002). Long before career choices come into play, computer classes and computer camps are filled with boys (DiDio, 1996), while girls are typically encouraged to focus on subjects such as literature and history. When women do choose to work in the IT field, the environment may be difficult. Powell co–authored a paper examining challenges she faced while studying Île Sans Fil, a community technology initiative in Montréal (Peddle, et al., 2005). According to the study, Powell’s experience as an academic who theorizes about technology was “not perceived as being useful” [9], and many male network members considered Powell’s research trivial when compared to core goals such as writing software code and deploying infrastructure.

About 15 percent of survey respondents reported their ages as between 20 and 29 years old, while exactly one–third indicated they were between 30 and 39 years old. The fact that nearly half the survey respondents are under the age of 40 raises red flags about the sustainability of community WiFi projects that depend heavily upon end–user involvement and their long–term commitment. Generally, younger people are saddled with fewer family and professional responsibilities. Therefore, as resource mobilization theory points out, they may have more discretionary income and leisure time to participate in advocacy organizations. As people become subsumed with raising children and work, they may have less time for contributing to grassroots broadband initiatives. In order for the peer–to–peer movement to grow in the future, it must attract both older and female participants.

Nearly half of all respondents reported a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education. About 25 percent indicated they earned a master’s or doctorate degree. A significant number of survey participants (27) reported holding jobs in the IT sector. However, several mesh routers now on the market require minimal technological know–how — creating the possibility for the peer–to–peer networking movement to draw in people who lack IT knowledge but are committed to the mission of digital inclusion. If “plug–and–play”” technology catches on, the potential for these networks to spread virally increases exponentially. On the flip side, there is a risk that the movement will bleed participants who — like 35 percent of the survey respondents — initially signed on to a peer–to–peer network with the goal of sharpening their own technical skills.

A preference for non–profits over venture capital models

A solid majority (62 percent) of survey respondents indicated belonging to non–profit community networks, compared to 18 percent who belonged to for–profit networks such as those enabled by companies like FON and Whisher. Only a few respondents participate in both, indicating an ideological divide between the people who join each type of network. About 53 percent of participants reported that non–profit WiFi signal sharing communities are better positioned to achieve digital inclusion goals, while a mere three percent reported a belief that for–profit networks are more likely to bridge the digital divide. The remaining 44 percent of study participants were “not sure” which model is more capable of broadening digital inclusion. These statistics suggest many broadband activists feel ambivalence regarding whether community networks actually connect disenfranchised people to the Internet, or simply expand access for those already online. In reality, however, both for–profit and community WiFi initiatives have a role to play in meeting digital inclusion goals.

Personal gain and public good

Nearly half of all respondents said they would characterize themselves as “political” or as activists. Even so, significantly fewer (eight percent) reported they are motivated to share wireless bandwidth primarily as a means of challenging incumbent telephone and cable ISPs. Of course, broadband activism can be operationalized through infinite types of action that do not involve directly challenging ISPs — from writing a member of Congress to posting a blog comment. About 29 percent of respondents self–identified as non–political, and a quarter of survey participants indicated they are “not sure” whether their behavior and actions could be identified as activism. Based on limited survey data, participants in the ad hoc networking movement are not motivated by radical political views. Therefore, it can be inferred that mesh networks are more likely to be sustained, and even grow, if advocates frame signal sharing as a mainstream tool for broadband access, rather than as an attack on the status quo or a fringe pursuit. It is not unusual for founders of signal sharing communities to maintain ties to political and business establishments. While viral network participants may be critical of the incumbent ISPs, they are not preoccupied with the negative aspects of the dominant structure of the U.S. telecommunications industry. Instead, they are focused on the positive consequences of their own actions. About 36 percent of survey respondents cited “a commitment to expanding broadband access” as the primary reason to participate in a signal–sharing network. Nearly as many, about 33 percent, said they are attracted to “the chance to use and share technical skills.”

Participants give time, money, knowledge

The questionnaire responses suggest that participation in the peer–to–peer networking movement is all–consuming for many broadband activists. Mesh network members indicated they are willing to contribute time, money and skills to the cause. Not only do they provide Internet access to community members, they also raise public consciousness about freedom of information and communication rights. Specifically, more than four out of 10 participants make financial contributions to help keep their networks running, according to survey results. Additionally, 75 percent of respondents stated that they both pay for an ISP connection and host repeaters for their community networks. A full 68 percent of respondents said they volunteer skills to improve open source mesh architecture, and 65 percent routinely attend network meetings. Some survey participants mentioned ways in which they directly share technical knowledge, such as by helping nearby communities start their own ad hoc networks and conducting computer–training workshops.

The survey results also highlight the viral nature of the peer–to–peer WiFi movement. About 33 percent of respondents indicated they had persuaded at least seven people to join their networks. About 31 percent recruited three or more people. Resource mobilization theory discusses this type of collective action, which is mandatory in order to truly disrupt the status quo. When broadband activists recruit friends and personal contacts, their own participation lends legitimacy to the signal–sharing phenomenon. A friend’s endorsement carries greater weight than, for example, a solicitation articulated in a form letter or a spam e–mail.

Despite strong enthusiasm for peer–to–peer networking, survey participants cited a variety of concerns regarding the use of wireless technology. About 65 percent of them listed reliability as their first or second greatest source of anxiety when it comes to using shared WiFi. Fifty–eight percent of participants characterized signal strength as their chief or second largest consideration when sharing bandwidth. Security of information also appears to weigh heavily on the minds of people who open their network connections, as a dozen survey respondents ranked it as their first or second greatest concern. Of course, security must be balanced with measures meant to protect privacy, which 19 percent of survey respondents said they worry about. Rounding out the list of issues people stated as causing trepidation was signal speed.

The civic engagement correlation

Joining a wireless community network appears to have a positive impact on civic engagement. This is significant because it suggests that ad hoc networking serves to help strengthen existing social and economic structures. Respondents overwhelmingly (69 percent) cited feeling a stronger sense of community since joining signal–sharing initiatives. About 58 percent of survey respondents stated they are more likely to volunteer for other causes since joining. Similarly, 67 percent agreed that they were more likely to attend a community meeting. These statistics suggest that a majority of members of mesh networks experience an increased sense of kinship with their neighbors beyond the grassroots wireless network. However, this does not appear to translate into greater involvement in establishment politics at the federal level. Just seven percent of participants reported actively pushing for legislation friendly to signal sharing.

Stakeholder policy reforms requested

The survey posed three open–ended questions, asking wireless community activists what steps primary stakeholders — local officials, federal regulators and commercial ISPs — could take to help expand the WiFi sharing movement. Several survey participants argued strongly against any form of government involvement in peer–to–peer networking. “Government should stay out of community projects, otherwise they become bogged down in the muck that is government,” one respondent wrote. Regardless, dozens of participants articulated specific actions local officials could take to facilitate deployment of mesh networks. Several requested support for local initiatives in the form of grants and technical expertise. One respondent asserted that simply demonstrating faith in grassroots initiatives, by making public statements and attending wireless community meetings, would be helpful. Other participants requested that ad hoc networks be granted access to municipally owned bandwidth; be allowed to place equipment on rooftops of city buildings; and, be allowed to install transmitters along public right–of–ways. Repeatedly, survey respondents criticized local officials for contracting with large out–of–town corporations to build citywide WiFi clouds, rather than turning to local non–profit groups to meet digital inclusion goals.

Numerous broadband activists used the survey as an opportunity to question why the federal government allows ISPs to bar subscribers from sharing bandwidth. As one respondent stated, he would like to see regulators “pressure Internet service providers to offer customers terms that do not forbid signal sharing.” Other respondents urged policy–makers on Capital Hill to make available additional spectrum for unlicensed devices (which the Federal Communications Commission committed to doing in November 2008). They also wrote they would like Washington to fund pilot projects in conjunction with universities, and to pass a law ensuring that all municipalities may legally operate broadband networks.

Survey participants had no shortage of recommended policy reforms for incumbent telecommunications companies, either. The most frequent suggestion was to eliminate language in terms of service agreements that prohibit bandwidth sharing. For example, respondents urged ISPs to “open up the legal right to share the services you have already paid for” and to “drop their agreement verbage [sic] that dictates how the service is used.” Hostility toward ISPs was evident in some comments, such as one advising telecommunication companies to “stop creating false marketing and misleading the public with lies and lobbying efforts.” Other remarks were conciliatory in nature, including one policy recommendation that ISPs donate or discount connections for non–profit networks in exchange for positive publicity.




One rationale for this study is that a dramatic increase in the use of mobile devices is driving demand for ubiquitous connectivity. The questionnaire results, however, contradict the assumption that wireless community members share their own WiFi signals in order to connect from any place, at any time. Survey participants unanimously reported that they “usually” access the Internet from their homes, offices or campuses — all of which tend to have paid Internet connections and, therefore, do not necessitate “borrowing” bandwidth from strangers. At the same time, about 65 percent of respondents indicated that their desire to expand broadband access is partially driven by the necessity to connect their own mobile devices to the Internet — and to create the same opportunity for others, as well. Specifically, one respondent noted wanting to “help the world communicate,” while another remarked that he hoped to “get more use from my infrastructure” by sharing it with others.

Based on the tenor and content of the remarks made by broadband activists, it is apparent wireless community network members resent the restrictions enacted by incumbent telecommunications companies. While a few comments do reflect a genuine desire to work with ISPs, a vast majority of comments imply a sense of injustice — an assumption that large companies will never cede power to community broadband groups. Yet a successful community mesh infrastructure is nearly impossible without a minimal level of cooperation from commercial systems that provide gateways to the Internet. The benefits for grassroots networks are obvious; the benefits are less clear for ISPs, however. According to resource mobilization theory, WiFi communities may force changes by adopting strategies used by ISPs themselves, such as taking advantage of the media to spread their message and lobbying policymakers (McCarthy and Zald, 1973).

Clearly, the motivations for participating in signal sharing communities are varied. They include a strong commitment to expanding broadband access, as well as opportunities to share “geek” skills like building mesh routers and figuring how to make these radios “talk” to one another. In fact, many survey respondents indicated selfish motivations for participating in a signal–sharing network, such as hopes of reducing personal expenses. As resource mobilization theory notes, social change actors are often on a quest for personal self–fulfillment, which may involve contributing to society as a whole [10]. The mesh networking movement has grown virally, with existing members constantly recruiting new participants. Consistent with Zald and McCarthy’s (2002) organizational approach to resource mobilization theory, social movements expand when existing members ask friends and contacts to join them. This “supply–side explanation” [11] of participation counters popular theories suggesting that people are drawn to social movements because they expect their personal involvement to change the status quo.

This study also set out to examine whether ad hoc initiatives are capable of expanding the public sphere by creating access to information, thus enabling marginalized populations to engage in deliberative discourse online. But the responses raise the possibility that participating in ad hoc networks spurs greater off–line participation in the public sphere, as well. People are obtaining new information about their communities on the Web, and then feel compelled to act on it in the physical world. Furthermore, community network activists view civic engagement as an agent of social change. While direct cause and effect cannot be inferred, about one–third of survey participants reported a greater likelihood of supporting a local political candidate or cause since becoming involved in the signal–sharing movement. By providing some evidence that peer–to–peer networking activities lead to an increase in public participation, this study strengthens the argument for government, at both the local and federal levels, to facilitate the creation of mesh networks.



Recommendations for federal policy–makers

Only 66 percent of American adults have a broadband connection at home (Smith, 2010). For obvious reasons related to job creation and global competitiveness, the federal government has a stake in ensuring all Americans gain access to information technology. However, economic growth motivations alone are inadequate to ensure lawmakers on Capital Hill and in the White House craft a progressive communications strategy. The only acceptable telecommunication policies must make electronic information widely available, while also fostering “a more vibrant democratic sphere,” generating a “sense of social responsibility,” and improving “quality of life” for all residents [12]. Because the federal government ultimately determines the level of access U.S. citizens have to communication systems and how those networks operate, this first set of recommendations is geared toward policy–makers in Washington.

1. The FCC should allocate additional unlicensed spectrum for wireless devices such as mesh routers. Currently, WiFi devices transmit in the 2.4 GHz frequency — the same “junk band” used by microwave ovens and cordless telephones. However, the federal government could make available additional unlicensed frequencies, similar to a beach that is free and open to the general public. This move would allow mesh routers to transmit stronger signals, creating more robust networks. It would also reduce costs associated with WiFi transmissions and lead to opportunities for new wireless services and products (Peha, 2009). Additional spectrum for wireless devices has the potential to expand the public sphere by creating new virtual spaces for civic participation.

2. Revise the E–Rate program to allow schools and libraries to open their wireless signals to surrounding community members. In an effort to bring schools and libraries into the information age, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 created the E–Rate program. Funds collected through a surcharge on every telephone customers’ bill are used to provide discounts — ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent — on eligible technology and Internet services for these institutions. Nationwide, E–Rate subsidizes up to US$2.25 billion in technology purchases annually. Given their capacity to expand digital inclusion, schools and libraries should be allowed to share their broadband connections with the surrounding community. In September 2010, the FCC revised its rules to permanently allow schools to open their facilities, when classes are not in session, to the general public to utilize services and facilities supported by E–Rate (E–Rate Central, 2010). Taken one step further, this connectivity could easily be used to provide gateway connections for wireless community mesh networks.

New E–Rate rules also allow eligible schools and libraries to receive funding for leasing dark fiber. Cities across the country own dark fiber because they built I–Nets, or institutional networks, connecting all municipal buildings. However, many cities never “lit” this fiber and, instead continue to use commercial telecom services. Utilizing these networks to serve as backbone infrastructure for ad hoc networks would both capitalize on an existing asset — cheap and super–fast municipally owned fiber networks — and create an opportunity for E–Rate subsidies to benefit a much broader segment of the population. A pilot program created by the FCC, also in September 2010, stops just shy of such a plan. The Learning on the Go initiative allocates US$10 million for funding a handful of schools and libraries providing free wireless access for students to use with their own digital devices while off–campus (E–Rate Central, 2010). These broadband connections could easily be used to supply bandwidth to ad hoc networks in surrounding low–income neighborhoods. Residents could take advantage of free wireless connectivity to look for employment, to create a town watch listserv, and to access government services.

This simple policy reform would greatly expand access to the public sphere and create social capital for those who cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial broadband service. If necessary, traffic management software could be employed to ensure a few residents do not download excessive amounts of data and slow the network for a majority of users. Resource mobilization theory, which characterizes social movements as extensions of establishment politics, would also come into play as community WiFi activists and public officials worked together toward a common goal.

3. Invest research and development dollars in technology that strengthens privacy and security of Internet networks. Survey respondents highlighted concerns that their personal data and computer operating systems could be compromised due to participation in a wireless community network. Additional federal funding for research on network protection would help ease fears that sharing wireless bandwidth results in increased vulnerability to viruses, hacker attacks, phishing or other online threats. As resource mobilization theory suggests, the behavior of government will influence how social movements are designed and deployed. If this policy recommendation were adopted, it could also lead to increased participation in the public sphere by those who currently fear joining a non-commercial broadband project.

4. Amend language in the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to explicitly state that wireless community network participants are exempt from prosecution under the statute. CALEA requires that telecommunications carriers and equipment manufacturers design their devices and services to ensure built–in surveillance capabilities, enabling federal agencies to monitor all broadband and VoIP traffic in real–time. Informants representing ad hoc initiatives in the United States repeatedly expressed concerns that because their networks do not archive traffic on a central server, individual participants could face criminal charges. In order for community mesh networks to expand, CALEA must be amended. As currently written, the act stifles the public sphere by eliminating any expectation of privacy or anonymity.

Recommendations for ISPs

As survey respondents revealed, the bulk of initiatives rely on sharing bandwidth provided by commercial ISPs. In the United States, the top 10 telephone and cable companies account for 75 percent of all Internet connections (Goldman, 2008). Because these commercial ISPs control the vast majority of broadband infrastructure, they play a pivotal role in the future development of U.S. ad hoc networks. The following policy recommendations are aimed at ensuring incumbent telecommunications companies do not use their dominant position in the free market to block the deployment of peer–to–peer networks that could assist under–served communities.

1. Share Internet backhaul — fiber, cable or WiMax — with grassroots networks for a reasonable fee. Telecommunications backhaul makes up the transitional links between the core, or backbone, of the system and the smaller sub–networks at the edges. Currently, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Cox, and similar incumbent ISPs rely on a business model in which they exercise exclusive control over how subscribers use their backhaul. For instance, VoIP service and on–demand videos often must be purchased through the ISP itself. Since the founding of the first commercial ISP called UUnet in 1987 (Salus, 1987), residential access has been sold (or freely distributed) on a one–subscription–per–household basis. Peer–to–peer networking could be the catalyst for an alternative business model capable of generating equal or greater revenue. Commercial telecommunications providers could charge community groups to use the backbone or primary anchor points in their infrastructure. This would enable volunteers to legally build ad hoc networks from these gateways and eliminate the need for network members to “steal” bandwidth from neighbors who subscribe to ISPs. While broadband providers would lose individual household subscribers with a business model such as this, they could compensate by charging higher fees for direct connections and “fatter” pipes of bandwidth. By leasing direct access to network infrastructure, telecommunications companies would acknowledge an emerging reality — that technology is making it possible for end users to exert an increasing amount of control over digital communications.

2. Revise terms of service agreements to permit subscribers to share bandwidth. Should peer–to–peer signal sharing grow in popularity, incumbent ISPs will need to determine whether it makes business sense to amend terms of service agreements and allow subscribers to share bandwidth, or to maintain the status quo and risk losing customers who opt to join ad hoc networks. This research concludes that incumbent ISPs should agree to the precedents established by the Carterfone decision, which allow users to attach foreign devices to telecommunications networks as long as they do not cause harm. If ISPs sanctioned viral networking over their infrastructure, community initiatives could provide value–added and localized services and, at the same time, users could distribute costs more efficiently. By accepting WiFi signal sharing, ISPs would also help establish a blueprint for “allowing an innovative grassroots idea to evolve, and then embrace it by centralizing and legitimizing aspects of it” [13].

The two recommendations for ISPs laid out in this section would work most effectively in tandem. If incumbent telephone and cable companies sold a large pipe of bandwidth to entire communities — for instance, to all residents living on a city block, or to all tenants of a 25–story apartment building — the cost of the connectivity could be split among residents. This business model would reduce monthly expenses for individual subscribers, while enabling ISPs to sell bandwidth without building out costly infrastructure to individual homes or units. Instead, most residents could access a neighbor’s direct gateway to the Internet via a mesh router. As the survey results show, peer–to–peer network members throughout the United States are already clandestinely using this technology. If ISPs stopped penalizing customers who opt to open their wireless signals, the practice could get more people online and potentially lead to new means of generating profits for telecommunications companies.

Recommendations for municipal governments

In an effort to create “knowledge economies” and “digital cities,” municipal officials across the country are implementing strategies that encompass broadband connectivity, computer ownership and skills training. At the same time, survey participants consistently stressed the challenges of sustaining volunteer–led initiatives in their neighborhoods. They noted that their projects would benefit dramatically from municipal–level involvement ranging from financial and staff resources, to technical assistance. The following recommendations are meant to help municipal officials guide and strengthen grassroots WiFi initiatives, while, simultaneously, fulfilling their own digital inclusion goals.

1. Provide micro–grants for community initiatives. Wireless community network participants reported that grants of even a few thousand dollars could cover the costs associated with critical needs — such as hosting servers, marketing their initiatives, purchasing bandwidth and conducting research. These basic functions are necessary for growing ad hoc communities, yet many U.S. networks are unable to fully execute them. Clearly, a shift in the political economy of telecommunications is needed when the federal government subsidizes corporate ISPs through the US$7.3 billion Universal Service Fund and negotiates the right to use streets and lampposts, while ad hoc networks do not benefit from any taxpayer dollars, and lack authority to site access points on city–owned property.

2. Open city–owned fiber networks to provide direct gateways to the Internet. Over the past decade, local governments throughout the United States laid fiber rings to support their own telecommunications needs. Often, this capacity is under–used or, in many cases, not used at all. Therefore, local governments should grant public access to this much–needed bandwidth. San Francisco and Savannah, Ga., are already connecting public housing residents to their municipally owned fiber rings, or I–Nets, and amplifying their reach by distributing mesh routers. The cities of Portland and Seattle plan to expand and open their own fiber infrastructure for residential access, as well. These moves are considered necessary because incumbent ISPs have declined to deploy broadband networks in low–income and rural areas, or charge rates beyond the means of low–income residents. Municipal governments are willing to risk legal challenges from telecommunications companies because they recognize the public good aspects of maximizing their fiber assets.

3. Offer technical support at 311 non–emergency call centers. Some survey respondents reported the tendency for participants to unplug their routers and give up the first time nodes fail. This is primarily because grassroots WiFi initiatives are able to offer only limited technical support — typically through online forums monitored by volunteers. As of June 2008, more than 65 U.S. municipalities hosted 311 call centers. Most of these operations were initially created to deal solely with non–emergency police matters. Today, however, residents rely on 311 call centers for reporting an array of problems — from nuisance bars and potholes, to icy sidewalks and graffiti (Harris, 2008). Therefore, it seems feasible for these same locations to house technical support staff capable of trouble–shooting common problems that arise for mesh network participants. Telephone support made available a few days per week, or for several hours each day, would go a long way toward retaining mesh network members who are new to using computers. It would also operationalize a key tenet of resource mobilization theory: that resources must be aggregated in order for social movements to function most efficiently.

4. Attend events hosted by wireless community groups and provide public education about signal sharing efforts. More than 600 people opened a link to the wireless community networking survey distributed for this study and then abandoned it. This suggests that a majority of Americans remain unfamiliar with the mesh networking movement or how to get involved with a project. Like most grassroots social movements, wireless signal sharing initiatives rely heavily on word–of–mouth — particularly from institutions and organizations with similar ideological positioning — to recruit participants. By making information available and supporting grassroots broadband, local officials could raise public consciousness regarding networks and, significantly, enable their own constituents to become more civically engaged.

Recommendations for wireless community participants

The number of U.S. fiber–to–the–home subscribers is growing at an annual pace of about 1.5 million (Fiber–to–the–Home Council, 2009), and many residents are likely to find themselves paying for more bandwidth than they actually consume. At the same time, pre–configured mesh devices are dropping in price. These two factors combined are helping create a new public sphere that operates beyond the purview of commercial ISPs. The following recommendations are intended to guide participants in the peer–to–peer networking movement as they share knowledge and skills to expand digital inclusion efforts in their communities.

1. Require participants to purchase mesh devices for their homes, but provide bandwidth at no charge. Repeatedly, informants stressed the need to foster a sense of ownership over wireless community networks. When participants are given mesh devices for free, this is less likely to happen. Therefore, members should be required to pay for the initial investment in equipment to be used in their own homes [14]. By contrast, data collected for this study strongly suggests that bandwidth should be provided free of charge to nodes owners who choose not to subscribe to an ISP. Free broadband access creates a powerful incentive to remain involved and to expand the network. More importantly, it establishes a sharing economy where some individuals contribute excess bandwidth capacity toward a common goal–helping close the digital divide.

2. Focus equally on innovation and broadband connectivity. One promising aspect of mesh architecture is that “out–of–the–box” technology requires minimal computer networking knowledge. A set of pre–configured routers may be plugged into the wall and, instantly, a mesh network emerges. For this reason, wireless community activists should continue directing resources toward this robust but simple means of broadband connectivity. At the same time, survey data illustrate that the signal sharing movement is largely driven by “techies” who appreciate the opportunity to develop routing protocols, create new applications and build mesh hardware. As a result, activities such as “hack nights” and “play days” should remain prominent aspects of peer–to–peer initiatives. As resource mobilization theory points out, individuals are motivated to join social movements because of the emotional and intellectual connections they feel with a broader community when working toward a mutual goal.

3. Deploy networks in low–income communities. In responses to the online survey, proponents of peer–to–peer signal sharing reported a genuine desire to help close the digital divide. Nevertheless, these initiatives tend to emerge in gentrified residential neighborhoods, upscale retail districts and near college campuses. Unless grassroots networks spread to disenfranchised communities, where residents will most benefit from free broadband connectivity, the movement’s potential to serve the public good will fall short.




In 2007, Americans contributed an estimated US$229 billion to charitable organizations (Association of Fundraising Professionals, 2008). Millions of individuals are obviously willing to write checks to their favorite causes. But far fewer actually participate in sustaining charitable organizations by lending knowledge and physical effort, as wireless community network participants do. The depth of the contributions made by these broadband activists suggests they possess unusual commitment to signal sharing — as well as to other social justice issues. This personal dedication distinguishes signal–sharing networks from typical non–profit organizations. One explanation is that members of the community are transformed from passive consumers into active users of technology. They maintain more control over the technology and are able to democratize it. However, joining this social movement appears to exert less influence in terms of participation in national politics. Perhaps this is a commentary on the truly grassroots nature of the peer–to–peer networking movement. Participants are clearly dedicated to affecting change close to home. Beyond their immediate communities, however, interest appears to wane.

Social movements are central to any analysis of how a society creates itself, and are present at various phases of historical development (Gamson, 1983). Certainly, the motivations for sharing bandwidth with strangers are not monolithic — both selfish and altruistic incentives play a role. This study suggests that peer–to–peer network participants recognize the potential to fulfill their own personal needs for affordable broadband service and, at the same time, help expand Internet access to those on the other side of the digital divide. End of article


About the author

Gwen Shaffer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Irvine. There, her research focuses on how to best incorporate telecommunications policy and economics into the Internet architecture. Shaffer received her Ph.D. from the Mass Media & Communication doctoral program at Temple University. Her dissertation examined the potential for peer–to–peer networking to help bridge the digital divide in the United States and Europe. Her previous studies examined how urban planners incorporate the use of mobile devices into their designs; municipal networks; and personal conduct in the blogosphere.
E–mail: g [dot] shaffer [at] uci [dot] edu



The U.S. National Science Foundation’s program on Science, Technology and Society provided funding for this study. The author is grateful to Dr. Jan Fernback, Dr. Concetta Stewart, Dr. Zizi Papacharissi and Dr. Jarice Hanson for their invaluable guidance and feedback on this research. The author also appreciates the dozens of community wireless networkers who made the study possible by sharing their experiences and knowledge.



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Editorial history

Received 8 December 2010; revised 3 April 2011; revised 25 April 2011; accepted 25 April 2011.

Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Gwen Shaffer.

Banding together for bandwidth: An analysis of survey results from wireless community network participants
by Gwen Shaffer.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 5 - 2 May 2011

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