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New Digital Stewards Program Developing Community Networks in Chicago

The Open Technology Institute is pleased to support the efforts of the Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership to bring gigabit connectivity to underserved neighborhoods in Chicago. The Woodlawn group was recently selected as an Associate by the University of Chicago’s Community Accelerator Program, and with the University’s support is planning next steps for the project, including working with residents to create a Digital Stewards program. Project organizers Pierre Clark and Norman Montgomery say their goal is to build an “Organic Broadband Wifi Mesh Network” In Woodlawn and other underserved Chicago communities.

Chicago Group Teams With Neighborhood Residents, University of Chicago Community Accelerator Program To Launch Digital Stewards Program In Woodlawn

By Pierre Clark and Norman Montgomery of Connect
Woodlawn Inc. and Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership. http://www.southsidebroadband.org

All over the country, broadband connectivity is being touted as the gateway to economic opportunity in the digital age. It seems states, counties, cities and towns are declaring their need for digital speed and developing and deploying high-­speed fiber­-optic networks that can deliver gigabit­ speed connectivity.

Yet the last-­mile challenge remains: not every household, building owner, small business-person or non­profit can get or will want fiber connectivity to their home or office. And for low-­income residents in neighborhoods not seen as economically viable enough to get or afford connectivity, it means being stranded along the digital divide without a connection to the bandwidth that makes streaming media, digital applications, data-­intensive websites and open data applications usable and valuable.

What’s the solution? For one group in Chicago’s Woodlawn community, Connect Woodlawn Inc., which has developed and has touted a community-­wide broadband connectivity solution for more than three years, Wi-Fi mesh is the technology of choice, with a companion strategy of linking to fiber-­optic cable to provide everywhere connectivity within the Wi-Fi network.

Connect Woodlawn Inc. and the Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership L3C, a group of community stakeholders championing and funding broadband use cases, are using Cisco/Meraki equipment to create a network backhaul alongside a unique open source mesh Wi-Fi solution, Commotion Wireless, created by the New America’s Open Technology Institute, to make sure high­speed broadband extends to every part of Woodlawn and by extension Chicago’s South Side.

In addition, they are partnering with OTI and launching a Digital Stewards program, through which 50 Woodlawn residents will learn how to setup and deploy what Pierre Clark -- the technology/economic development entrepreneur who founded Connect Woodlawn Inc. and the WBEP L3C -- calls an “organic broadband Wi-Fi network.” “An organic broadband Wi-Fi network,” says Clark, “will establish itself, spread and be maintained by residents who will connect to our larger Wi-Fi / Fiber network infrastructure. The residents who become Digital Stewards under our program will take the network to the last mile and keep it connected, expanding it and spreading it throughout our neighborhoods. And as more residents in other neighborhoods learn about the connectivity resources the network can provide, they will be introduced to it and trained by existing members of the organic broadband Wi-Fi network.”

Connect Woodlawn Inc. has established its first Wi-Fi access point at the Sunshine Incubator on 61st and Eberhart, and is launching the Digital Stewards/Organic Broadband Wi-Fi Network program from the incubator. Connect Woodlawn Inc. is partnering with the University of Chicago Community Accelerator program, which selected the organization as one of eleven to participate in its Community Accelerator program, to engage students at the University in helping to provide training in network design and digital literacy. Connect Woodlawn Inc. will set up a 200Mbps point-to-point tower at Sunshine, and in the spring of 2015 will add a connection to gigabit speed fiber­-optic cable, which will provide dramatically increased bandwidth across the network, according to Clark and Network Operations Director Norman Montgomery, a 25­-year telecom veteran. The incubator, developed by Sunshine Enterprises, is one of five (5) so­-called “anchor institutions” which will be connected to fiber-­optic cable and Wi-Fi through Connect Woodlawn Inc. in its first two phases.

Other locations include the five buildings owned by Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors Inc., 6450 South Stony Island Avenue, along Woodlawn’s eastern corridor; the Woodlawn Community Health Center at 6337 South Woodlawn, which will partner through Connect Woodlawn with the UC Medical center’s Echo Chicago program on a community­-wide telehealth/­telemedicine initiative; and three buildings on the western border of Woodlawn between King Drive and Wabash Avenues.

The deployment of the organic broadband Wi-Fi network, says Clark, will be critical to spreading connectivity throughout all the neighborhoods of Woodlawn and the South Side. “We see the organic broadband wifi network as supporting our efforts to provide high-­speed bandwidth, especially in those low-­income areas that traditionally have been red­lined out of connectivity.” As well, the organic broadband network, like Connect Woodlawn Inc. itself and the WBEP L3C, grows out of a desire by community residents to create their own economic resources and determine their own economic futures.