In its recent newsletter “Building Our Region Back Better,” published on May 9, 2021, the New York Community Trust (NYCT) featured Community Tech NY as one of its latest grantees. The grantmaking foundation announced its focus towards a more vital and equitable New York City by supporting organizations that help close the digital divide. Community Tech NY is the recipient of a $250,000 grant. The organization will apply the funds to working with its partners — three low-income NYC communities of color — “as they promote digital equity and build internet tools and services as long-term, community-centered solutions to the digital divide.”
This article describes the coalition of activists and nonprofits including CTNY who are putting pressure on service providers and creating local broadband solutions.
With the pandemic and remote learning challenges receding, the Digital Equity Coalition is now working with Community Tech NY and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance to determine next steps. Some goals include making The Bronx’s broadband needs known beyond NYC policymakers, and working with similar groups in other urban areas to share knowledge and strength.
Community Tech NY has worked with groups in Detroit, Red Hook and Kingston, N.Y., and with THE POINT CDC in Hunts Point to improvise community-based internet solutions. The inclusion alliance shares information among similar digital equity efforts across the country and advocates for greater support with policymakers.
Community Tech New York, an organization committed to digital justice and to building community power through community-owned internet infrastructure, offers “portable network kits,” “a wireless network in a suitcase that helps people [learn] how to build their own mini-internet – and with it, how the internet works and might be owned and governed more equitably.” The kits serve both as a teaching tool and an “emergency standalone wireless network.” Unlike the humanitarian and development kits, the network kits down-scale an intimidatingly, inaccessibly complex infrastructure to make it intelligible and manipulable for common folks. The Community Tech team specifies that the kits “are not a product”; they’re used for “training community members in network development and deployment, giving them practical hands-on experience that can serve as a springboard for building their own networks.” And building their own networks, as CTNY Director Greta Byrum writes, gives communities an opportunity to choose which values they want to instantiate in the infrastructure that binds them together. All that from a box of cables!
Mattern, Shannon. “Unboxing the Toolkit.” Tool-shed. 9 July 2021
The areas that the Equitable Internet Initiative serves are predominantly communities of color, and the digital stewards that EII train and employ come from these communities. “It’s easier to make a community member a technician than a technician a community member,” according to digital steward Shiva Shahmir.
Kalischer-Coggins, Aaron. “How Detroit residents are building their own internet.” The Hill: Changing America. 28 May 2021
Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) is a partnership between Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) and community organizations, including these three anchors: North End Woodward Community Coalition, Grace in Action, and Church of the Messiah, serving the Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan neighborhoods. Together, DCTP and Community Tech New York founded the Community Tech Collective.
The Changing America video above features a Portable Network Kit (PNK) built in October 2019. DCTP contracted CTNY members to design and build this PNK and others for the purpose of training the Detroit Digital Stewards and network managers and to be deployed as needed. Since then, the PNK has been incorporated into the EII resiliency plan, as discussed in the video and respective article.
We also work to increase internet adoption through a digital stewardship program which prepares residents in our neighborhoods [of Detroit and Highland Park] to operate, manage, and own their own internet. All of our 18 employees come from the communities they serve and are trained in community organizing and the technology necessary to maintain a network.
Reverend Joan Ross, Operating Director, North End Woodward Community Coalition (She is featured from 9:00 – 17:37 time marks)
Through the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), the Detroit Community Technology Project(DCTP) supports North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC). CTNY co-director Monique Tate led the North End EII network in Detroit from ~2016-2021.
“It is a transformative moment in digital equity because there’s an awareness and a visibility of this issue that there’s never been before,” said Greta Byrum, Director of Policy at the nonprofit Community Tech NY and co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory at the New School. “We’re seeing incredible creativity and innovation.” Byrum said that each of the initiatives underway are imperfect but contain seeds of solutions. “Think of it like a garden, you have to weed over here, plant over here, water over here,” she said. “This is a structural problem like climate or racism… It can feel really daunting, like any structural issue, if you want a simple solution. But this is the work of our lifetime. And New Yorkers love a challenge.”
Gould, Jessica. “What It Will Take To Bring Strong Internet Service To Every NYC Student.” Gothamist. 13 May 2021.
Across the country, advocates for locally-owned broadband — a loosely affiliated network of fiber providers, digital equity nonprofits, labor unions, churches, educators and municipalities — are girding for battle. Enabling municipalities and local communities to build their own networks, they argue, removes the profit incentives that cable giants have, driving down costs and leading to reinvestment in the community. The Biden plan, they say, is an opportunity unlike any they’ve seen before to put that idea into practice nationwide. “This is a moment where we just have to get more active than we’ve ever been,” said Greta Byrum, director of nonprofit Community Tech NY.
Lapowsky, Issy. “In Biden’s broadband plan, cable is in for the fight of its life.” protocol. 11 May 2021.
The proceeding generated a record-breaking number of comments — more than 22 million. The attorney general’s report found that nearly 18 million of those were fake comments, and the broadband industry group, called Broadband for America, spent $4.2 million generating more than 8.5 million of the fake FCC comments. Half a million fake letters were also sent to Congress.
Arbel, Tali, “Broadband industry behind millions of fake comments to FCC pushing net neutrality repeal”, New York attorney general says, Associated Press, 6 May, 2021
Take Hunts Point in the South Bronx, where a local community development corporation called THE POINT recruited young people to build their own free wireless Wi-Fi network to connect learners and residents. Hunts Point Free WiFi is managed by people who live here and supported by local businesses. To a community built on a vulnerable peninsula hit hard by COVID-19, connectivity is more than just hooking up to the internet. It’s about building self-reliance, generating wealth and sustaining a platform to build a community-driven vision of the future.
Byrum, Greta. “To build lasting digital equity, look to communities,” The Hill. 29 March 2021.