Community Infrastructure

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Gareth Shearman
Telecommunities Canada
Garth Graham
Telecommunities Canada

How do communities change to function in an online world? The online experience is a work in progress. The disparate channels and media of yesterday evolve into one all encompassing structure. Internet Protocol becomes central to daily life. Yet traditional assumptions about how members of a community know and are informed seem unable to properly impart the richness of what is being learned.

Increasingly, the reality of this new zone of socialization reveals a paradigm shift in how we understand human nature, expressed through the use of interactive networks. It impacts on communities more positively than negatively but does exacerbate socio-economic divisions.

Traditional responses to facilitating access of citizens to the online world are a part of the problem. They are incremental or seek to preserve older infrastructure. Existing communications industries seek to limit the disruption to their current business practices and investments that Internet Protocol (IP) represents. Reaction by governments to the disruption of governance structures has recently begun.

For people marginalized by such a society, effective capacity to use the Internet becomes a basic need. Suitable market conditions alone cannot meet that need. Only community-based experience and control of communications infrastructure based on Internet Protocol can provide underserved groups with the means to use digital technology effectively.


Communities need to assert responsibility for control of their online experience. Thus we examine ways that community online can enhance the power of individuals and groups within communities to use the Internet for development.


The power to distribute processes of transaction and interaction will continue to increase, and its cost to decrease. This growth in process complexity represents a shift in our capacity to understand and apply the role of dynamic networks in the structure of human relations. We don’t yet know its full impact.

Effective use of distributed processing power depends on leaving the decisions to connect in the hands of a network’s members. Networks self-organize. The rules governing their shape are self-referential and internal to each participating element. Individuals as networks are different from communities as networks, but structured by the same rules. They are ruled by the need to adapt.

Because they can learn, networks are dynamically complex, not mechanistic. We can grasp their principles of self-organization. We can follow the story of how they were informed and what they then did. We cannot predict what they will do.

Identity is learned. The network is always there for reasons that emerge from its experience. It continuously tells us who “we” are, and that we are still in control of telling our own story. For a dynamic network to cohere, the narrative (the story it tells and remembers) must be able to adapt to whatever it experiences. It is never designed. And a network, and also a society that is composed of networks, always learns its way around the imposition of external order.

Because of that need to learn, now is the time to reconceptualize the Internet as critical local infrastructure for the governance of connection. Now is the time for local governments to accept responsibility for ensuring that this particular public good continues to exist. In the 21st century, moving bits is just as fundamental as moving people and cars. But the Internet is different from other critical infrastructure, because the cooperative dimensions of the essential Internet Protocol need to be protected in the public interest. Getting that protection in place begins from within community.


We should base our definition in capacity to change technologies, not in specific technical solutions. We cannot yet see the upper limits of network capacity to connect. But, if our network infrastructure can scale in parallel to growths in data transfer rates and the complexity of networked applications, then we have broadband.

Local Ownership

Because control of a network (of the means by which IP affects the place where we live) is inextricably bound up with capacity for socio-economic development, municipalities cannot afford to wait on the whims of external suppliers. The “market” will not give us the IP network flexibility we need to keep moving forward. To ensure an appropriate network infrastructure is created in a manner that protects community needs, we must do it ourselves.

Broadband lessons learned make it clear that local ownership drives economic development. Community-based approaches to control of local communications infrastructure stimulate development from the bottom up, increase social well-being, and improve government service delivery among those groups least likely to have profited from digital opportunities.

In an online world, our successes depend on cooperative linkages, and on the way our community uses communications technologies to link to outside producers and consumers that are important to us. If we own the “last mile,” then our chances of making the interactive development choices we face and learning from what results are better than if we don’t.

Local ownership and governance of open-access broadband “backbones” as public utilities are based on 4 principles:

• Autonomy of decisions to connect.

• IP is a public good that local governments must sustain.

• Focus on the uses of ICTs for development, not “technologies,”

• Public ownership of local networks can be structured to foster the growth of local private enterprise.

Local Defense of IP’s Role

The key change driver in the current communications context is the Internet, and in particular Internet Protocol, not “telecommunications.” Much more than changes in processes, products and services, IP is driving fundamental shifts in the way that things get done. Local ownership of community-based open networks allows for IP to live and breath.

IP itself is not an artifact. It’s a set of rules for codes about how various digital communications capacities will work. All it does is move packets of bits across routers acting as reciprocating peers. . At any one moment, the constituent bits that make up its flow are the result of millions of decisions to connect that occur at its edges.

IP and its effects are in the public domain. To constrain the full impact of IP is to enclose a common. It is the role of governments to guarantee that the IP common remains open.

In IP, the choice to connect is an individual choice, not corporate. To sustain the self-organization of networks, the Internet enhances the autonomy of the individual to relate to other individuals without reference to authority or to structures that purport to legitimize or "represent" their choices. The growth and evolution of Internet use continues because more people like the autonomy this gives them than do not.

The power of IP comes from the capacity it gives us to spin webs of significance through the choices we make about links. For new meanings, new perceptions to emerge and survive, it is essential that our decisions about connecting remain self-determined.

It is self-defeating for businesses to block our capacity to decide what and where to place our live links among each other. When a market is informed by peer-to-peer relationships then everyone in it is a member. In a networked economy, every market is a community that informs its decisions. There are no more customers. To imagine consumers as passive receptacles of products and services is to ignore the interactive roles we all play in networked systems of demand and supply.

The self-organizing networks that IP was designed to sustain are networks of people. We should not talk about governance “of” the Internet. We should talk about governance “by” the Internet. We have to begin telling politicians that the distributed structure of a society that is online and an economy that is networked is a structure of communities. In such a society, IP becomes a social contract about collaborative relationships in which everyone acts as ”router” and as “Universal Resource Locator.”

Open Access

The best means to stimulate local socio-economic development through Internet use is by access to an open network utility where the rules of play are the same for everyone. Networks reduce transaction costs. Open access ensures we are doing enough for local businesses, organizations and individuals to gain that advantage.

Just because we own the network doesn’t mean we have to operate it. Operations can and should be outsourced. Public – private partnerships are possible, even desirable, in the creation and operation of essential local Internet infrastructure.

Open access creates a level playing field by separating:
• Construction and ownership of physical network infrastructure

• Network management (by contracting out when local authorities don’t need those skills to reach objectives)

• Service providers (lowering the barriers to entry in local markets for Internet service fairly, thus promoting growth and competition, and generating revenue for both network owners and managers)

In such a utility, the better the service providers do, the better the network operator does and the better the owner does. Both the operator and the owner have incentives to encourage innovation and growth in services. We create a local market for online goods and services where the major benefits stay in our own economy.


Local Government Should Act to Control the Infrastructure of the Local Internet Loop

The capacity of communities to make development choices is critical to sustaining the open systems of a knowledge society. Local control of the infrastructure of the local Internet loop supports that essential autonomy. The price of universal access to technologies is not the primary social issue. Because IP affects relationships, participation in and effective use of networked social structures is the primary social issue. Until they move to local control, local governments can’t begin to make an impact on correcting negative social change as a consequence of living daily life online. The actions needed to achieve this result include:

• An approach to broadband communications use that can scale up
• Local network ownership
• Local government commitment to an open IP common.
• Design and operation of local networks as open access

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