The necessity to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for fast, reliable and affordable broadband internet. It is indisputable: access to the internet is essential. There has long been an acknowledgment that the connectivity disparity in America is only serving to widen the income gap. However, before the term ‘digital divide’ was coined a small group in Portland, Oregon set about addressing the shortcomings in connectivity that their community faced.
For the past twenty years, the Personal Telco Project (PTP) has been creating a network in Portland using a mesh system, whereby homes and businesses (hosts) would use their existing internet connection as a ‘node’, making Wi-Fi connections available to the public. As participation in the network grew, the speed and coverage of this network improved.
I had a conversation with Russell Senior, President of the Personal Telco Project. We discussed the origins of the groups, the impact it had on Portland Internet culture and what they did to address the immediate needs of the community. We also looked at solutions to the broader issue of the digital divide in Portland.
Lewis: Can you tell me how the group got started? What was the pressing need at the time?
Russell Senior: It started as a result of three things: The dot com bubble had burst and tech workers who had been accustomed to what was at the time high-speed Internet in their offices, were suddenly at home, where they didn’t have fast Internet connections.
The second factor was that Wi-Fi gear had started to become more accessible. You could go to a store and buy a router or a PCMCIA card and plug it into your laptop.
Finally, the founder of the group, Adam Shand, saw an article on Slashdot about a group in London called ‘Consume.net’ where people were using Wi-Fi technology to create a community wireless network, and he was inspired to do something similar in Portland. That was in the year 2000, and that was the beginning of the Personal Telco Project.These people were realizing that the telecommunication infrastructure and the constraints that bigger operators were imposing, were not satisfying their needs, so they decided try to build an alternative infrastructure.
In 2003 we became a 501c3 nonprofit and the network was growing pretty rapidly. In 2005 we received a grant of about $15,000 to build an outdoor network in a low-income neighborhood along Mississippi Ave and asked for people to help. By chance, that’s when I started coming to meetings. I had been aware of the project for some time, but having young children left me short on time. Once my kids were a little older, I decided to get involved. At the first meeting, they announced they had just been awarded the grant from Meyer Memorial Trust, and issued a Call for Participation. I showed up at the kickoff meeting with a GPS device and was immediately appointed leader of the recon team which was used to go around the neighborhood and scout locations.
In the early days, our monthly meetings had several dozen attendees. Installs would draw a dozen volunteers. Over time, there was an attrition on membership as the network infrastructure had been built which was more labor intensive. PTP is currently an active group of about six people. Node hosts are a more passive kind of volunteer, and there are perhaps 50-60 of them
LWG: What were the technological challenges for PTP?
RS: The primary barrier was the quality of open source drivers for wifi radios. In those days, Linksys WRT54G’s were commonly used, as you could put alternate firmware on them, but the big issue was that they had radios made by Broadcom, which had drivers that were not open source. As a result, you were pinned to a LINUX kernel, which allowed limited changes. The best option at the time was a series of radios made by Atheros that were open-source-ish. For the Mississippi Grant Project, the key feature we needed was WDS (Wireless Distribution Systems).
We were deploying single board computers in a little enclosure on the roofs of buildings and using 5GHz to do backhaul between the buildings and then a 2.4GHz a radio in the same box that would provide local coverage for devices to connect to.
LWG: Were there difficulties in finding hosts?
RS: It is difficult. Ideally, you would have some sort of friendly outreach person to go around and promote the network and tell people how great it is. We did have a person like that in the early days, Nigel Ballard, who would go around to local coffee shops, and in the course of getting coffee, would promote the idea of a wifi network to the businesses. This was in the early days of wifi generally, so it was new to many people, and they were only beginning to understand what it was and how it could benefit them and their communities.
At peak, we had around 140 networks, around 30 of which were networks that we didn’t establish directly, but we let them use our SSID.
LWG: How did ISPs respond to this? Was there ever any issue with them?
RS: In the early 2000s in Oregon we had a vibrant DSL based ecosystem, which was essentially an open access network. There were so many ‘Mom and Pop’ dial-up ISPs in Oregon. There were instantly dozens of options to choose from once you signed up with a phone company to get DSL. The telecoms also created their own, but many people already had existing relationships, so they stuck with them once DSL came in.
There were so many locally-owned ISPs that liked what we were doing and felt that we were good for business. Whereas the bigger provider was hostile, as the idea of users sharing a network was seen as a threat to their revenue. When we would help create a network, we would provide the host with a list of ISPs that we knew wouldn’t give them problems, and recommend that the person go with one of them. No one, to my knowledge, was ever hassled by an ISP.
LWG: Did the group overestimate the scalability of wireless networks?
RS: I think our enthusiasm for the wireless stuff and building a mesh network was born out of an ignorance of what wasn’t possible. We thought we could build an alternative infrastructure. We didn’t have the density of individuals to make a widespread network.
In the very early days, we didn’t understand the limitations of the thing. We had a particular problem with the physical geography of Portland, in that most of the footprint is flat, with short houses and tall trees, which made line-of-sight difficult over anything but short distances.
LWG: As Wi-Fi is much more commonplace now, has the opportunity for PTP to create networks decreased over time?
RS: I think the perceived need to have us help people build their network has decreased. We still offer something most small businesses and individuals can’t do for themselves, which is a set of management tools on a gateway router that allows us to deal with abuse, if it occurs. These tools generally aren’t available on consumer off-the-shelf access points.
We also offer a community vibe, that lets small businesses say, “hey, we are a member of the community and we work with these community organizations to benefit the community.” We like to think we helped normalize the idea that a coffee shop should provide free Wi-Fi. It was easy to try and commodify Wi-Fi access for small businesses, but we went in with the attitude of ‘we will help you create this network, we will do it for free, but you can’t charge people to use it.’ ‘It should be free for your customers and you will generate goodwill between the customers, and this will lead to an increase in business.’ Nowadays, it is really uncommon to have to pay for Wi-Fi access at businesses.
In the earlier days, when we had local media focusing on what we were doing, the Portland International Airport adopted free Wi-Fi throughout the terminals. Another trend we have seen is that the tech nerd demographic lost the enthusiasm for free Wi-Fi when the cell phone data plans became more prevalent.
LWG: Going forward, how do you feel that the digital divide can be addressed for other communities?
RS: I had always seen Wi-Fi as a more localized technology rather than something that was going to provide people with a sustainable, scalable infrastructure.
Telecommunication has tremendous value. The problem is that the owners of the infrastructure that facilitates telecommunication, particularly last-mile access providers, have so much market power that they can capture a disproportionate share of that value through the prices they charge.
The cost of building the infrastructure has presented a barrier to entry that make it an unattractive investment for second providers, which means that competition is very weak, increasing the market power of the dominant provider. FCC "light touch" regulation has left heavy-handed power in the hands of the access provider. I have concluded that the most practical way out of this situation is for users to directly invest in the access infrastructure so that they can set rules that serve their interests. In the end, it is much cheaper to own than it is to rent.
The underlying philosophy is that ISPs have too much power and we want to circumvent that. So, in order for societies to be able to subsidize the people that need to be subsidized, the price needs to be lowered to a point where it is much closer to the actual cost of providing the service. I think the only way to get to that point, is to own the infrastructure.
So, some model with public ownership, or non-profit, is the only way we are going to get to that price point and not just throwing public resources at a giant company with a huge mouth that gets bigger as its appetite improves. You can’t go to Comcast and say ‘please help us out, we have this sob story of these people that cant internet service.’ They will just keep jacking the price for as much money as they can pry out of the public.
LWG: What are the benefits of making broadband a public utility?
RS: We have seen this approach be effective with other public utilities. The Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific North-West is a good example of this. The Federal Govt constructed hydroelectric infrastructure on the Columbia River and the electricity is sold wholesale with the prices to market regulated. We have lots of examples of municipal utilities like water and sewer service, and there are parallels to the transportation systems, which are nearly all public infrastructure.
The problem comes back to funding. You can have a bunch of people that form a non-profit, but unless you have bonding authority and can borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, you are not going to get it off the ground. Therefore, the best solution is the most local government you can get to raise the money to build the network. That’s why I think city is the right scale: Large enough to secure funding but local enough to be responsive to the needs of the residents.
LWG: 5G is touted as the solution to the digital divide by the telecom companies. How do you respond to that?
RS: Cell phone data is the bottled water of the Internet; it is convenient on the go, but it is expensive and always comes with a cap.
When LTE first appeared, everyone was excited by how fast it was, but the reality is, you can run through your limit in 15 minutes. Sure it is fast, but it is capped, so volume becomes the problem when you are providing that same service to 100 million-plus people. By depending on 5G, you will be at the mercy of your cell phone carrier. 5G infrastructure will depend on fiber cables anyway, so why not just take the fiber to the house?
If anyone thinks that 5G can solve these issues, I would ask them: do you like your cell carrier now? Do you feel like you are treated fairly? Because they will be the same companies controlling the 5G market.
LWG: Can you tell me about your new initiative?
RS: We started a 501c4 advocacy group called “The Municipal Broadband Coalition of America.” Our local campaign is called Municipal Broadband PDX. There had been an exploration of a municipal network in 2007 in Portland, but the issue was fear of risk and a lack of political leadership, possibly combined with philosophical hostility to the public intervening where a private enterprise was operating.
This time around, Multnomah County has been receptive, so far, and we have gained good traction, getting local authorities to invest in a feasibility study. The county has seen the need to address the digital divide as gentrification has driven many people, particularly Black people, out of Portland and into areas that are under-served. The idea of subsidizing these communities to improve their connectivity is being discussed.
LWG: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this issue?
RS:The school board is subsiding families that cannot afford the Comcast Essentials package, so that their children can stay connected to school. This means that the government is pouring money into the large ISPs for a service that is essential. The fact that the internet is essential to everyday life is becoming more obvious every day.
Our thanks to Russell for his time. Personal Telco Project is still working to expand the mesh network in Portland and reduce access disparity. Through his work with The Municipal Broadband Coalition of America, Russell looks to build upon the work of PTP, by facilitating a better connected society.