Getting Connected

Katherine Ortiz installs a router on a roof in Red Hook. Photograph courtesy the Red Hook Initiative

RED HOOK’S Digital Stewards program isn’t for everyone. “If you are afraid of heights,” the organization warns in its training material, “these sessions may pose a challenge for you.” It’s a useful heads-up, because for a year participants learn every aspect of wireless networking: scampering around on rooftops, running cables, and configuring nodes. The stewards, all between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four and residents of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, are intent on using their digital skills to knit the community together. They’ve put up nearly two dozen breadbox-shaped plastic routers to create a network of coverage called Red Hook WiFi, which extends throughout the neighborhood, from housing projects to daycare centers to the local library.

In a place where there’s little history of digital connectivity, its abundance now is sparking new signs of life. At the Red Hook Initiative, a warehouse turned community center, heaps of young people gather, many of them pulled in by the magnet of a free internet connection. On any given day, it’s not uncommon to see them hanging out in the center’s main gathering space, checking e-mails, doing homework, and writing college application essays on laptops borrowed from the center.

According to Katherine Ortiz, a twenty-three-year-old former digital steward, the network has allowed people in the community to apply for jobs as well as college, both of which often require online applications. “It’s been a big help,” she says. Red Hook’s wireless access also helps young people to participate in the churn of online discussion and sharing as they develop a marketable skill set.

Red Hook WiFi began in 2011 out of necessity, as a community-based solution to the long-struggling, somewhat isolated neighborhood’s difficulties getting online. As internet service has made its way across the country, it has hardly been universal, and Red Hook is one of the many communities left behind by service providers. Some areas are too sparsely populated to be profitable, broadband providers often argue. Some poorer communities have also been bypassed by providers in their build-outs. And in many parts of the country, it’s not uncommon to have only one choice of bandwidth provider. As with any product on the market, the lack of competition leaves little incentive for major internet service providers (ISPs) to lower prices or offer best service, let alone provide universal access. Cable providers are routinely rated the most disliked companies in the country.

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought electricity to rural America through the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which now consists of nearly fifty thousand miles of roads crisscrossing the nation. Although many of us are accustomed to thinking of infrastructure as bridges and roads, sewers and power grids, the internet is as much a form of infrastructure as any of these. Access, with its accompanying benefits of connectivity, is similarly a key issue.

In 2010, President Obama launched what he called his “National Broadband Plan,” intended to guide the build-out of high-speed broadband throughout the United States, particularly in places that otherwise lack good internet options. Some hoped the president’s plan would mark the start of a New Deal for the internet age, a bringing of connectivity to the countryside. “In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee,” Obama has asked, “why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” But while the president helped direct billions in funding for internet build-out, the impact of the plan has been limited—2 percent of Americans still have no internet access, and a full 20 percent of Americans still aren’t online, many because of high costs and poor service.

In the last few years there’s been a shift toward a grassroots form of internet connectivity, where communities come together to figure out how to best connect to the internet in a way that makes the most sense for them. In Red Hook, this has been through a community wireless technology called “mesh.”


RED HOOK, population eleven thousand, is a predominantly low-income neighborhood that was ravaged by the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Located across New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty on a spit of land that was once a prosperous shipping port, Red Hook was cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by the six-lane Gowanus Expressway, completed in 1964. In recent years, the neighborhood has seen an influx of people who have moved from elsewhere in the city, attracted to its waterfront charms, industrial architecture, and affordable rents. Together, this blended community is working to pull the internet into Red Hook in a way that is affordable and sustainable.

Until recently, many Red Hook residents had few good ways to get online. Home broadband internet access typically costs about forty dollars a month, which can be a daunting bill to pay for those who live in the community housing projects that make up much of the neighborhood. Laptops are hard to come by, and while cell phones are prevalent, data plans can be prohibitively expensive, especially for young people who dominate this neighborhood.

The Red Hook Initiative opened its doors in 2002, originally as a health center. Now a vibrant community organization with a million-dollar budget, RHI embraces the notion that fixing what ails society starts with empowered youth. Anthony Schloss, RHI’s media coordinator, enlisted the help of JR Baldwin of the Open Technology Institute, a DC-based nonprofit, to get the wireless program running. In the fall of 2011, Baldwin ordered a handful of weatherproof nanostations from Amazon. It wasn’t a major expense, Baldwin says: “They came two to a pack for just eighty-nine dollars.” Baldwin and Schloss headed up to the Red Hook Initiative’s roof and attached one of the routers to a mast. They then ran a cable back inside the center and connected it to the nonprofit’s existing internet connection, provided by Verizon. All told, they spent less than three hundred dollars—and Red Hook WiFi was born.

During their yearlong service, the digital stewards are trained by the Red Hook Initiative and the Open Technology Institute to build a network by hand. It’s a first job for many of them. Rather than working at the local deli or babysitting, they’re running cables down the sides of buildings, designing network layouts, and learning to code.

Katherine Ortiz, who graduated from the Digital Stewards program in February of 2014, lives in the Red Hook Houses with her mom and four-year-old son. Ortiz says of her job as a steward: “It gave me another way to think about what I could do for a career. Technology wasn’t something I thought I could do.”

The wireless mesh network in Red Hook is different from the WiFi that most users are familiar with. Mesh uses a style of digital networking where wireless routers communicate with each other to pass the signal around. Mesh networks grow by bringing more and more access points online to extend the digital blanket. Anyone willing to put up a router on his or her rooftop or, with the help of a suction cup, a window, can play a role in helping the network thrive.

These networks have considerable advantages over wired connections. If you think of a traditional internet connection like owning a car, mesh communities are a bit like carpooling. Mesh can work with one connection to the internet, or several for redundancy, or none at all, in which case data can still be used locally until the internet is back up. Mesh can be grown organically bit by bit—even cell phones can be commandeered to ferry a signal along. And mesh is self-healing: if one router goes out of service, other routers automatically reconfigure themselves to help cover the gap. Finally, because it is handcrafted, mesh can be adapted to fit the unique contours of a community. Mesh networks can be challenging to build, as the people of Red Hook are learning, but in some ways, they are a reflection of communities themselves: the pieces that make up a network are stronger in their interdependence than when acting alone.

Three years after its modest beginnings, the Red Hook network is robust. The wireless signal begins on the top of the Fairway Building, an iconic waterside structure that holds what is perhaps Brooklyn’s most famous grocery store. From there the signal is passed, in the form of radio waves, like a three-dimensional game of telephone, hopping from router to router across the rooftops of the neighborhood’s tallest buildings. It gets pushed closer to the ground by access points, or small pieces of equipment capable of catching and sending wireless signals. The resulting digital streams jump down to cell phones, tablets, or laptops forming a digital network that allows residents of this remote slice of New York City to access the intersnet for free. Or free for now. The Red Hook Initiative is working on getting additional funding to keep it that way.

The Verizon connection, which was never intended to be shared by so many users, has been replaced by a local ISP. Brooklyn Fiber is the creation of two tech-savvy brothers who grew frustrated with a national cable provider that seemingly showed little interest in servicing Red Hook. This local resource is largely what makes Red Hook WiFi possible at this scale. Brooklyn Fiber allows the Red Hook Initiative to share its internet connection as far and as wide as it wants for a flat fee.

Red Hook’s mesh network got its first big test of community support when Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012. The lights went out, phone lines stopped working, and internet in much of the neighborhood went down. The water stopped its disastrous rise just across the street from RHI, and the center became the hub of neighborhood life. At the height of the crisis, some twelve hundred people a day were coming in to find assistance. What most people wanted was internet, whether it was to reach out for help, let friends and family know that they were okay, or just check sports scores while trying to reestablish a sense of normalcy. A rooftop satellite dish, brought in by FEMA, temporarily served as the source feed for the neighborhood’s homegrown WiFi network. Communications, it seems, are as important to restore as just about anything else; being able to communicate helps give people a sense of agency, a way to get back on their feet.

Before the storm, some in the community had resisted letting RHI trudge up to their rooftops to set up routers. After Sandy, doors opened and RHI was able to establish a full-strength signal covering the park where the Red Cross and other aid workers were gathered. Although the network was small at the time, it was just about the only internet access in town.


RED HOOK WIFI is one of at least thirty community WiFi projects across the country. In Kansas City, where Google rolled out its supposedly “citywide” Google Fiber in 2012, many citizens and internet activists were disappointed when fiber connections ultimately turned out to be limited to those neighborhoods that could afford the upgrade—not the 17 percent of the city that was entirely without internet access to begin with.

As a response, the KC Freedom Network was created as a community-owned wireless internet co-op that installs and maintains a grassroots mesh network. Organized by six different community entities, from musicians to the Black Economic Union, the network now provides internet to three of the city’s housing projects, filling the gaps that Google left behind and teaching the community to build and maintain its own networks. The service is currently free, and is supported through crowdfunding and donations, but the network hopes to eventually provide internet for just twenty dollars a year.

To Michael Liimatta, a former Lutheran minister and member of KC Freedom Network, the sharing model makes perfect sense because he’s used it to build community infrastructure before. Recalls Liimatta, “Twenty years ago, I lived in a place that had septic tanks. Everybody said, ‘Let’s build a sewer system.’ So we got together, formed an association, and borrowed money to get all the pipes laid to connect to the main Kansas City sewer district. If we can do that with sewers, why can’t we do that with the internet?”

In Detroit, a community wireless project has been underway since 2010, when a nonprofit called the Allied Media Projects came together with several other Detroit-based organizations to provide low-cost internet to underserved areas of the city and to foster community-owned and stewarded communications infrastructure that supported existing social networks. The Open Technology Institute collaborated with the coalition to develop the original Digital Stewards curriculum—the prototype for what’s used in Red Hook.

The program in Detroit now has seven networks up and running with stewards ranging in age from nineteen to eighty-two, though presumably not all of them are climbing around on rooftops. The networks in Detroit are autonomous, and depend on community organizers already embedded in their own neighborhoods to spearhead digital initiatives after being trained as stewards.

Greta Byrum, an OTI field technologist who helped develop the curriculum and train early groups of stewards in Detroit, says that the group is not just focused on providing internet. Part of the philosophy is to create a healthy digital ecology. “The goal,” Byrum says, “is to design projects so they’re addressing multiple interlocking needs of the community,” from improving communications between small businesses, to installing sensors in the neighborhood that measure air quality.

For cities that have the resources and political will, municipally owned networks with wired connections can be a fast and reliable alternative to commercial broadband. The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, took a top-down approach to addressing its lack of affordable broadband access. It built its own municipal fiber network by piggybacking off the communications capabilities already built into its municipal electrical grid. Fiber networks, in which a lightwave passes through glass, are immensely fast compared to traditional copper wires used by cable companies—one fiber connection could carry the phone traffic of the entire United States.

Chattanooga invested $330 million dollars in the network, receiving over $100 million in federal stimulus money for the project, which extends across 600 square miles. The city-owned electric company became the public ISP, providing gigabit service for $70 a month, relatively cheap for that speed. Developing such a network is not without risk. As of yet, only 4,000 households have signed up for the plan, but the city has recreated itself as a tech hub, and is steadily attracting programmers and entrepreneurs. Other cities, including Santa Monica, California; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Bristol, Virgina, have also created municipal fiber networks. Many other states, however, have passed legislation, supported by private telecom companies, to prohibit these municipal networks altogether.

Rural areas require a different model. In western Massachusetts, the WiredWest Cooperative is working to bring together rural towns underserved by the state’s existing broadband infrastructure, and build out a collectively owned fiber network to individual homes. This fiber network, also known as the “last mile” of internet connectivity, will run from existing telephone and electrical poles.

“Larger municipalities are generally self-sufficient. But if you’re a small town, it’s a lot harder,” says Monica Webb, chair of WiredWest. WiredWest has encouraged towns to pool resources and political leverage to create economies of scale. The total cost of the project is $110 million dollars, with the forty-two member towns contributing $65 million and the state contributing the rest (much of the initial work has been provided by volunteers). But despite the upfront cost, towns see it as a critical investment. Fiber networks can last a generation, are potentially cheaper to maintain than a wireless network, and prices for access are expected to be very affordable compared to current options. Many see this fiber network as critical to the long-term viability of small towns in Massachusetts, which are already contending with an aging demographic and population loss. It is hoped that the high-speed connection will draw new businesses to the area, bringing much-needed jobs.


THE RED HOOK INITIATIVE team has worked with the Open Technology Institute to build out a suite of online applications meant to make the homegrown wireless network especially attractive to local users. One app builds upon the fact that all of Red Hook is served by just one city bus; “Where’s the B61 Bus?” strips away all the extraneous information provided by other New York City transit apps, leaving locals with only the travel updates that they need in order to get in, out of, and around Red Hook. The team also built an app for collecting detailed data on the New York City Police Department’s so-called “stop-and-frisk” encounters that particularly plague young men of color in the neighborhood. And another app provides updates on what’s happening only in Red Hook, from news of a local business opening to specifics on upcoming educational events. All three apps pop up as soon as anyone signs on to Red Hook WiFi.

After Katherine Ortiz finished her year as a digital steward, she won a four-month fellowship to study coding at Code for Progress in Washington DC. Now she’s back in Red Hook and brimming with ideas for apps that would improve daily life in her community. Ortiz has long understood the need for the neighborhood to come together to get its basic needs met. When the sink in her apartment in the Red Hook Houses broke, the New York Housing Authority removed it—but took four months to bring her family a new one. She wants to take on such maintenance issues in the projects (the New York Housing Authority, she says, is “doing it way too old school”) by creating an app to encourage transparency and accountability for NYHA workers, so that the citizens of Red Hook can be sure to get basic services. Says Ortiz, “We need to be treated like regular people despite the fact that we live in the projects.”

Red Hook WiFi is an integral part of improving quality of life in the neighborhood, and it’s one that citizens have taken on themselves. Ortiz adds, “Having it here has given us a better understanding of how we can work together to help one another.” In the process, she says, “we’ve become a better community for it.”

Nancy Scola, a reporter for The Washington Post, has published writing in The American Prospect, Salon, and The Atlantic. She lives in Washington DC.

Comments

  1. This is a wonderfully uplifting story about community building, but it harbors a dark shadow of what may be yet to come. To willfully and gleefully establish a wireless “mesh” network throughout a densely settled area such as Brooklyn’s Red Hook looks great until one considers the impact of blanketing the community with electromagnetic radiation from a myriad of sources “even suction cupped” to residents’ windows. The World Health Organization recently uprated exposure to this type of nonionizing microwave radiation as a Class B probable carcinogen. Cell phones continue to be seen as culprits in tumor genesis and other health concerns) at the point of use or transported on users bodies( shirt pockets & pants pockets). And unwitting residents are being encouraged to accept this technology “upgrade” as beneficial without even one iota of debate to the contrary. Oddly enough, these good folks at Red Hook Initiative (formerly a health center) are doing the work of the utility companies that are eagerly trying to cram their wireless mesh networks of Smart Meters into urban neighborhoods. Communities are pushing back everywhere around the world against this unwarranted meshed radiation of their neighborhoods, but happy campers like Red Hook’s wifiers will easily embrace additional electrosmog into their homes and workplaces, until the other shoe drops and widespread cancer clusters and other health issues begin to announce themselves. The wifi stewards in this article will be the front liners as they are shown working on rooftops right next to presumably energized cellular antennae that emit dangerously high power densities of electromagnetic frequencies. Industry personnel at least know to power down antennae before working in such close proximity. I would invite the author and editorial staff to do some further research into this mesh networking model and question the prevailing view that we can keep jamming more and more EMF into our living environment without consequence. There is ample science on this subject and several excellent documentary films with many experts in this field, industry insiders included, who decry the ever burgeoning use of radiofrequency transmission of what could otherwise be run through fiber optic cables or existing twisted copper infrastructure. I found great irony in reading this piece which compares the RHIWiFi to the sewer pipes in a Kansas City neighborhood. Wireless microwave energy is not in a pipe but ubiquitously blankets your environment. Fiber optic broadband with hard wired connectivity is comparable to having some big pipes in place! Everyone in Red Hook may be better served and interconnected now, but in time the Red Hook Initiative may be back to providing health services to an immunosuppressed, cancer ridden population of its own making. The genie is out of the bottle but someone had better start placing warning labels and precautionary limits on exposure times before this goes too far. I found myself thinking that here is a social justice issue of the community’s own making wherein fiber optic broadband was passed over by big moneyed corporate telecoms who might have installed a wired network if there were a buck to be made…but this then forced the residents to build out a wireless mode of internet connectivity with an even wider spread web of EMFs at fractions of the cost and with philanthropic funding.
    Not your typical social justice scenario tis and all the while bathing young and old in ever more radiofrequency radiation and microwaved pings that bounce all around their neighborhood.

  2. Interesting article but Orion knows that there is another critical side to this picture! The health effects have been ignored in this article and that is quite unfortunate. Yes, these are wonderful technological advancements but for goodness sakes they all involve a possible human carcinogen (which according to many scientists should be probable). A balanced approach in journalism and with technology would be beneficial to all. We cannot continue, in good conscience, to sacrifice the health of our youth because this technology is convenient.

  3. Orion, which is among the premier environmental publications in the world, published an excellent, but in a critical way a very sad piece on the wonders of tech and community organizing. It embodies many of the things I talk about in my own work over 30 years as a medical/science writer re: how we got to where we are with some of the smartest people doing dumb things. This is what happens when radiofrequency radiation (RF) used in all wireless technology, including the wifi featured here, is waived off the table as an environmental factor. The writer is clearly an ace tech writer with good intentions but appears — like most tech writers — to know nothing about the biological implications of wireless. It is partly overspecialization in media that creates such knowledge gaps. Much of what is written in the piece is laudatory in every way but one — these are biologically active exposures about which the young people being trained, and the underserved community being ‘connected,’ are likely unaware. The only truly advantageous network mentioned is Monica Webb’s Wired West and the municipally owned system in Tennessee. This is also what happens — especially in enviro circles where tech is seen as the solution to many problems — when not enough homework is done and crucial pieces are left out. Undoubtedly the editorial staff at Orion loved the community spirit of this piece. Who wouldn’t? All of the considerable upsides are clear. But the photo of that young woman being trained to install wifi on rooftops, possibly under already existing cellular antenna installations, and bands of young techies spreading out to attach wireless routers all over a low-income neighborhood are chilling to those who know something about this subject.
    The science is coming in fast on this, though almost exclusively from outside of the US where industry has a lockdown on government funding for unbiased research. Most of the regulatory agencies with a stake in this have lost in-house research scientists to retirement and labs closing and no one new is being trained in bioelectromagnetics or appropriations set aside. It is an enormous loss of significant, timely institutional knowledge right before our eyes — and totally uncovered by the media. This at a time when over 6,000 studies in the last decade have found worrying effects from very low intensity RF exposures comparable to the Red Hook mesh network. (see http://www.bioinitiative.org). Plus, the World Health Organization’s IARC committee has classified RF as a 2-B (possible) carcinogen , along with formaldehyde, DDT and exhaust fumes, with an eye toward upgrading it to a “probable” human carcinogen this year (if that committee can survive the tremendous industry pressure currently being brought to bear). Germany has recommended that citizens and schools keep their phone and computer networks wired; and France has banned wifi in that country’s national libraries because librarians were being made ill. The EU and many of their nationstates have adopted a precautionary principal approach — but not here. In the U.S., there are some Waldorf Schools now abandoning wifi in favor of wired systems and schools forbidding cell tower installations. But such decisions are individual and patchwork, based on someone taking the time to investigate. In the meantime, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which sets exposure standards for RF, is currently reviewing their very obsolete standards, which take no studies past 1986 formerly into consideration. But few are hopeful that the FCC will do anything other than industry’s bidding — and possibly even make the standards more lenient. In fact the FCC last year reclassified the human ear (pinna) as an ‘appendage’ (like an arm or leg), the result of which allows new cell phones to put out considerably more radiation. (The ear is nothing like an appendage.) This on top of the fact that the new 4G LTE technology transmits a far more complex signal with unusual and highly biologically active characteristics that applies to both the near-field exposures of cell phones/laptops and the far-field exposures of accompanying infrastructure. All of this is reflected in mesh networks.
    Thomas Wheeler, a longtime industry insider, now heads the FCC (see “Another Industry Crony at the FCC” by B. Blake Levitt, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/10/another-industry-crony-at-the-fcc) The stakes are high with this — all living DNA is involved, including that of non-human species. For Orion to publish such an otherwise excellent, heartening piece on technology and community involvement, yet exclude such a significant hidden variable, is perplexing. I hope Orion considers a future piece that incorporates all aspects of this most essential subject. We all live with, and depend upon technology. But we have to get this right. These are not benign exposures even at low intensities — and there are far safer alternatives. We must keep RF on the table as an environmental factor in order to create safe tech. Layer upon layer of unquestioned wireless exposure as portrayed in this piece ain’t it…

    B. Blake Levitt, author of “Electromagnetic Fields, A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues…” ; and “Cell-Phone Towers and Communities, The Struggle for Local Control,” Orion Afield, Autumn 1998).

  4. Dear Friends at Orion,
    One of the principles of a democratic/ecological technology is that it be easily wielded and maintained by the people who use it. Through the Digital Stewards training (“Getting Connected,” Jan/Feb 2015), community members are learning how to work with wireless routers, etc., an effort that appears to fit the bill. But truthfully, such devices are what in the 1960s the Black Panthers called The Man´s Technology: they are invented, manufactured, and disseminated by the dominant society for the purpose of wielding (and maintaining) its dysfunctional functioning.
    A second principle for detecting a worthy technology is that it harms neither health nor ecology. The irony here is that I learned about the biological dangers of electromagnetic radiation from an article published in Orion Afield (“Cell-Phone Towers and Communities,” 1998). The essential question is: would you stick-your-head-into/sleep-inside/submit-your-children to a… microwave oven? And did it ever occur to you that–aside from the success the telecommunications industry has had intertwining its machines with your every breath and belief system–these same technics are being used to exploit resources faster: forge invisible weapons of mass destruction; watch the inner workings of sovereign nations; along with toxic chemicals, manipulate weather through climate engineering; use your consumer cash to fortify a toothpick-bolstered Wall Street and your tax monies to fund the government´s wireless exploits. Not to mention: keep you diverted from real issues, track your every word and move, and quell mutiny.
    How appalling it has been to watch our precious ecology movement sidestep the uses and effects of such unacceptable technologies. Instead of publishing an essay on what appears to be pro-environmental justice, how about a piece on Red Hook´s rising rates of cancers, heart attacks, insomnia, and immunological diseases dating from the day of the installation of its community Wi-Fi system?

    Chellis Glendinning
    Chuquisaca, Bolivia

  5. I’ve worked for years organizing with communities like Red Hook around media diversity and digital rights. I’m grateful to Orion and Nancy Scola for highlighting these critical media justice issues and how communities are developing locally driven solutions. We need this kind of documentation to help other communities tackle similar challenges.

    I don’t have to make the case for how important Internet access is to these communities, the article does that well. This isn’t just about browsing the web, this is an issue that is critical to education, jobs, community organizing and more. As Internet access is becoming more and more of a necessity, Red Hook has developed an answer that allows for meaningful local control and local decision making.

    Many of these commenters seem to assume that the Red Hook community is somehow being taken advantage of, or that they are making uninformed choices about the health and safety of their community. Given the care and intentionality with which this program has been designed and developed, that doesn’t seem likely. And worse, I think those assumptions discount the local knowledge and expertise of the community.

    I appreciate Orion recognizing that Internet access is indeed a critical infrastructure for our communities today. Building grassroots alternatives to the private commercial networks that exist, ones that give local people real choice about how they connect to the web and real control over the technology in their communities, is a powerful and important act.

  6. I’m glad that Blake Levitt and others have commented about the health effects of microwave radiation. I haven’t read the article yet, but it should be noted that when wireless companies and cable companies negotiate contracts with cities, they often get the cities to agree NOT to provide municipal fiberoptic internet access to their citizens. Fiberoptic internet access does not prevent exposure from on-premises wireless routers, but it does reduce exposure for those living near antennas for WiMAX transponders that are being deployed in some cities for smart meters and for “WiFi everywhere.”

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