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UW researchers work to decrease the digital divide in the Puget Sound region

UW, TCN and Althea members successfully deployed the first LTE in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma last month.

While the internet is so critical for employment, education and communication, millions of Americans in rural and urban areas still do not have access to affordable connections. This lack of access further contributes to digital and economic inequality, especially during a pandemic when many schools and jobs have been moved online. A team of University of Washington researchers led by professor Kurtis Heimerl and Ph.D. student Esther Jang of the Allen School’s Information & Communications Technology for Development Lab are helping to address this problem right here in Washington.

With support from the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), the group — which includes UW Tacoma urban studies professor Emma Slager and Jason Young, a senior research scientist in the iSchool — is deploying networks that will bring new, inexpensive, community-owned connectivity to marginalized communities in Seattle and Tacoma. The UW is one of 25 universities to receive a PIT-UN grant, which was created to fund critical research and build an inclusive career pipeline to advance the field of public interest technology. 

Community cellular networks are owned and operated by the community they serve with the help of public and local organizations such as schools, nonprofits, community centers, makerspaces, libraries, small businesses, and tiny house villages. Leveraging their expertise in working with community cellular networks internationally, the team deployed a new network with a local connectivity non-profit, the Tacoma Community Network (TCN), to bring inexpensive, community-owned connectivity to the Hilltop community in the third largest city in Washington. 

Bee Ivey, TCN’s volunteer executive director, said that as a nonprofit cooperative, TCN can focus on great speed and service without worrying about pleasing shareholders. To be sustainable, TCN needs about 20-25 members per “gateway,” which is an access point from which internet connectivity is distributed to the community. The partnership with the UW will empower TCN to connect more individuals at a lower price, which in turn allows them to get even more low income and extremely low income households online. Although the project is focused on making digital connections, it turns out that a personal touch was critical to making it work.

“We did a lot of canvassing prior to the pandemic, which allowed us to really connect with residents of Hilltop. One of the great things about being face-to-face is that you get to know people and hear their stories about how the internet affects their lives,” said Ivey. “It was truly eye-opening for us to meet so many people who didn’t have internet and had no way to access it, and definitely brought the statistics and research we’d seen to life. 

Up to a quarter of all urban residents don’t have internet access, according to some studies, Ivey said, and it was made very clear the ways in which people are held back from living full, productive and satisfying lives when they lack internet access. Hearing these stories definitely strengthened the team’s resolve to continue the work connecting everyone to the internet. Now with the pandemic, they are focused on social media and networking, along with mailers to help reach more people who need internet access.

UW, TCN and Althea members built and deployed an LTE in Hilltop, in Tacoma

In Tacoma, one LTE network deployed in November contains eight households and is growing. Althea, a software company that makes mesh networking technology in which TCN’s routers use blockchain-based micro-payments to pay each other for traffic forwarding, is supporting the project. It has set up community wireless mesh networks all over the world, and is interested in integrating with LTE. 

“Although we had a modest start, it represents a 30 percent adoption rate among the houses we were immediately able to reach,” said Ivey. “With the University of Washington’s help, we will be able to expand the number of households within our reach, as well as offer different types of internet connections — both typical wireless ISP equipment and LTE, the same data network used by cell phones. While there are many fantastic community-based internet networks out there, this particular type has never been deployed before in the United States to my knowledge, and it will make it far easier for individuals to access the internet.”

UW spun out the Local Connectivity Lab to deploy the LTE networking technology, powered by open-source software and operating in the Citizen’s Band Radio Service frequency spectrum, which is open enough to allow unlicensed devices to transmit in much of Seattle and Tacoma. This will allow the researchers to run open-sourced cellular networks in the U.S. on a small community scale. 

“Cellular networks, with their higher-power access points, more favorable spectrum, and more efficient waveforms, have a much wider coverage area and user capacity than typical WiFi networks, and are also designed for user mobility like cell phones,” said Esther Jang, an Allen School graduate student leading the project. “Some initial line-of-sight link performance tests from our test deployment at UW yielded 60 megabits per second down and eight Mbps up with Consumer Premises Equipment, like a stationary user device with our SIM card at 1.3 miles away, from a backhaul connection around 150 Mbps.”

The team’s work is a part of the ICTD Lab’s goal to eventually create a cellular network that will allow people or organizations to deploy their own networks as easily as they do WiFi routers, where each network can come together to provide mutual roaming, which they call “cooperative cellular.” They are currently looking for non-profit organizations to help launch in Seattle, in addition to a King County Equity and Social Justice they recently received.

In addition to creating this open-sourced software and deploying it in communities that need it most, the group will also develop a STEM course called Community Networking. The course will give students an opportunity to explore the research, development and practice of access-related PIT and the partners and communities that are demonstrating an alternative viable path for a career in technology. 

“Most of us take Internet access for granted to the point that, when the internet goes down, we struggle with continuing to get our work done,” said Allen School Director Magdalena Balazinska. “Yet some people, here in the United States, do not have such access. As computer scientists, we should always strive to solve important societal and world problems. I’m very excited about the way this project is using computer science to have a profound, positive impact on society.”

Read more about the project in a related iSchool article here.