Sustainable Broadband Adoption: Are ISPs the Missing Link?

As Sarah mentioned a few weeks ago, TechSoup is currently working on a project funded by the Surdna Foundation to survey the landscape of BTOP-funded public computing initiatives and compile resources, lessons learned, and best practices. It's been fascinating to chat with people about their projects and learn about recent successes and challenges in the world of public access computing.

I recently spoke with Jason Schroeder of the Appalachian Center for Collaborative and Engaged Learning (ACCEL), the organization managing the Connect Your Community project in Appalachian Ohio (the project has separate hubs in Cleveland and Akron). Connect Your Community takes a two-tiered approach to public access computing: first, the project offers classes and one-on-one training for people to develop computer and Internet skills; second, it seeks to equip as many people as possible with ongoing broadband access, both in their homes and in public labs.

Jason and I talked about the various resources for donated, discounted, and free computers, software, and training manuals. But the missing link, he told me, is the companies that provide broadband access itself:

The difficulty that we're having is that for the most part the telecoms perceive projects like ours as either giving away their services, which we are not, or taking away customers that they would just normally have anyway, which we are not. Their motivation is not to try to make community access affordable and easy. So it's very difficult to get them to come to the table and discuss anything. Where we have found a measure of success is in the small, privately held ISPs. They are the ones who recognize that we are basically finding them customers, and so they are willing to create some sort of offerings for those customers that are more affordable.

Jason told me that ideally, he'd like to see wireless mesh networks spring up in the neighborhoods that ACCEL is serving. The community would still be paying ISPs for Internet access, he explained, but that access would go further and reach more people than it would otherwise. There's no technological limitation keeping people from setting up such a network now, but Jason said that he doesn't want to look like he's going behind providers' backs; he doesn't want to endorse a mesh network without an ISP's approval, and that's approval that they're not likely to give.

The other thing would be if as an ISP, you would give us permission to do an open mesh network in the neighborhood, maybe that whole neighborhood group is paying. They are still paying the bill. It's just under the understanding that there is only one service address. It is five people, and they are paying $150, but it is coming out of one house. But the ISPs are understandably wary of that. And they don't want to discuss it if you say, "You know, there is nothing that stops us from doing that anyway. We are just trying to make it above board. There is no reason why your neighbor couldn't just buy a router and not password protect it, and he and his three friends all share the Internet."

… For us, we are trying to say, "Look, we are not going to … encourage that unless you say we can. And if you say that we can, just imagine how great that would be. So you have got a neighborhood right now where two people have service, but if we can get them up to where half the neighborhood has service and you are making twice the money you were a month ago, isn't that a win? They don't quite see it that way yet.

The discussion reminded me of Fab Lab, an organization that I wrote about last year. Since early 2008, Fab Lab volunteers have been building and maintaining an ad hoc WiFi network in Jalalabad, a former Taliban stronghold in Eastern Afghanistan. Not only has the project exponentially increased Jalalabad's access to information; it's also helped members of the community develop marketable skills by building and maintaining the network. It's a great model of how broadband access can serve and empower a community on many levels at once. But that kind of game-changing broadband access requires that the key players in technology understand and share the project's goals. As a sector, do we have the ability to get ISPs onboard with a new way of thinking about community broadband access?