The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNTís) community-based work indicates that the inability of low-income communities to progress is based in part on a lack of access to good information and data. To address this, CNT developed a neighborhood indicators tool, first available through dial-up, and later through the Internet, under the auspices of the Neighborhood Early Warning System (NEWS). NEWS found that most community groups working in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods lacked the Internet access necessary to get the information in the first place. Eight years later, while strides have been made to address this problem, lack of Internet access remains a challenge.
An early strategy in the field of community development for addressing a similar market failure, affordable housing, was to build the capacity of local community-based organizations in the form of community development corporations (CDCs) to develop the housing themselves. A similar capacity-building strategy - financially and technically - for community technology is necessary. Community Technology Centers need to deliver revenue-generating high-speed, low-cost Internet service to households, small businesses, and other community institutions in a manner that is scalable, replicable, and self-sustaining. This project, Wireless Community Networks (WCN), will test the new, next-generation community-based strategy for addressing the lack of access to technology in low-income and underserved communities: the wireless community network.
The proposal encapsulates the first step in such a strategy - to build the capacity of community institutions with a technology mission while testing the wireless community network in four lower-income communities in urban, suburban, and rural Illinois. The networks will be based on an innovative "mesh" network model that uses low-cost Wi-Fi (the 802.11b networking standard) technology. The four community anchor institutions will provide training and support for the network.
Pilot communities include: Pilsen and North Lawndale, two low-income, minority neighborhoods in the City of Chicago; Elgin, a low-to-moderate city northwest of Chicago; and West Frankfort, a small, remote, low-income former coal mining town in Southern Illinois. All of these communities have the demographic makeup indicative of communities falling further behind. The anchor institution in Pilsen is the Gads Hill Center, in North Lawndale the Homan Square Community Center Foundation, in Elgin School District U-46, and in Frankfort the John A. Logan College. CNT serves as the coordinator. The technical partner is Earl Levine, founder of the cooperative wireless network College Terrace in Palo Alto, CA.