Community Networks: Filling the Gap Between Market Forces & Government Funds

Opinion by Georgia Evans. This article is part of the Corporations and Competition, a series by Georgia Evans on Canadian Telecommunications policy.



Relying on market forces to connect one hundred percent of Canadians to the internet has failed, but government funds have also not been and will continue to not be enough to remedy the problem.


The digital divide is a complex problem, but emerging within the connectivity gap is a creative solution: community networks. These are networks that are built by the community, for the community, and are run by the community [1]. Community networks have a history in media and communications infrastructure, and their latest iteration in telecommunications and internet services have addressed the digital divide in various connectivity deserts across the globe. They are flourishing in Canada and the United States, Spain, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Georgia, South Africa, and more [2].


Mark Buell, the Regional Vice President for North America at the Internet Society, says that there are several different types of community networks, and finding the right business model and network solutions “really just depend on what works for any given community” [3]. The digital divide manifests itself through different ways: access, affordability, digital literacy, and so on and so forth. No one understands the problems facing a community better than the community itself, so these networks are uniquely tailored to their needs.


Underlying the different models of community networks is that they are a commons, rather than private- or state-owned infrastructure [4]. The Internet Society stewards a community network program to help communities determine the best sustainable connectivity model for them. It helps communities by providing its expertise and resources through training, advocacy, and assistance in deployment [5]. From dense urban centers to connectivity deserts in remote areas, community networks can support the meaningful access that billions still lack.


NYC Mesh – Addressing Affordability and Access in The Boroughs


“Anti-authority.” “Tech rebels.” “Guerilla Wi-Fi.” Major news outlets have used these descriptors for the volunteer-run community network, NYC Mesh [6][7]. New York City is home to families of all incomes – from the wealthiest of the wealthy in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to the 17.9% of families who live in poverty [8]. The income divide intersects with the digital divide in two ways in the city: (1) for many low-income families, internet is simply unaffordable and (2) internet service providers (ISPs) build their networks less in low-income communities [9]. In New York City, affluent families have a wealth of options when it comes to connectivity while others do not. So, despite being one of the wealthiest cities of the world, thousands of people live without residential internet connections. One million New Yorkers do not have access to broadband connections at home [10].


NYC Mesh is the largest community network in the city, serving about 800 households in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn [11]. Members connect to the mesh network through wireless routers usually located on rooftops; NYC Mesh’s network peers at an Internet Exchange Point, therefore cutting out the middleman intermediary of an ISP [12]. Since the purpose of this network is not to extract profits, but to serve the common good of the community through common infrastructure, the business model is different from a regular ISP. NYC Mesh operates through a pay-what-you-can system. The suggested price is ten dollars a month, but for the families that that is out of reach, they don’t have to pay even that [13]. It’s about finding what works for families within the community. The heaviest cost of the mesh is for the installation of routers, amounting to a total of $290 [14]. While the fixed wireless service of the mesh network may be seen as sub-optimal, residents are receiving high-performing service and $290 for installation is a far more affordable lift than the cost of say, a fibre-optic network, or the cost of not connecting at all. In New York City, like in Canada, telecommunications are beholden to the whims of oligopolists, and NYC Mesh helps citizens escape the grips of their market power. Perhaps more Canadian communities should look to NYC Mesh as a model for creative connectivity considering the ongoing digital divide.


Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo – A Community Network for an Independent Nation


Since the 1990s, the small independent Nation of Hawai’i - distinct from the state of Hawai’i - in the village Pu’uhonua o Waimanolo in Oahu, has recognized how the internet impacts the ability to thrive [15]. The state of Hawai’i, the Nation of Hawai’i and the Internet Society support the resources for the Waimanolo community network [16]. The community network was built by and is managed by the community itself.


One of the main challenges the community faced was created by its mountainous topography and access to backhaul [17]. Backhaul is the intermediate connection between the core network and the local network. Mr. Buell said that backhaul is a barrier faced by many communities building their own networks, as it is often the most expensive part of the project [18]. The Internet Society provided training to community members so they could build and maintain the network themselves. Since its deployment in 2019, the community network has been key for supporting the nation’s sovereignty and self-determination [19]. Similar to other Indigenous-led community networks, once enough funds have been collected from users to exceed breaking even, profits are re-invested into the community [20]. The Waimanalo network is undergoing an expansion currently, funded by the profits, to serve surrounding communities. Profits can also be used by communities to fund upgrades to networks or to subsidize the cost of the network for residents [21]. The possibilities are endless when the purpose of collecting revenue is to better provide for the community, rather than pay dividends to shareholders.


Community Networks in Canada


Community networks are growing in Canada. A high-profile example is ConnectTO: the City of Toronto’s exploration into building a municipal network to help its low-income residents afford meaningful connectivity [22]. Municipal networks, having the goal of providing a service rather than collecting a profit, should become standard across the country. Other basic infrastructures, such as water, roads, and transit, are treated as commons, so why shouldn’t the internet?


Like in Hawai’i, community networks have served as a tool of self-determination in Indigenous communities across Canada. In Maskwacis, Alberta, Bruce Buffalo founded the Mamawapowin Community Network to bring internet to a former connectivity desert [23]. He first fundraised and self-funded the creation of WiFi hotspots for the community; now, the network is expanding.


The Mamawapowin Technology Society is servicing the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis and is in the process of expanding their services to all four Nations in Maskwacis [24]. Maureen James, the Manager of the Community Investment Program at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority which has provided funding to the Mamawapowin Technology Society, has said that while these community networks are inspiring, they “reflect the hard reality that there’s really no alternative available for people living outside of Canada’s urban centres” [25]. Designing community networks around community ownership and sustainable revenue generation not only contributes to positive long-term development but also offers a valuable solution to a problem that did not have to exist in the first place.


Learning about networking technologies, physically building infrastructure, maintaining the integrity and reliability of a network, and watching that network serve and transform a community is an incredibly empowering experience. Community networks show that the best way to meet a community’s needs is through the community itself, and are an incredibly viable option for citizens who are failed by the current connectivity landscape.

  1. Internet Society, “Community Networks,” Date Accessed August 25, 2021, https://www.internetsociety.org/issues/community-networks/

  2. Ibid.

  3. Mark Buell (Regional Vice President, North America at the Internet Society), in Conversation with Georgia Evans, May 24, 2021.

  4. Melanie DuLong de Rosnay and Felix Treguer (Eds), Telecommunications Reclaimed: A Hands-On Guide to Networking Communities, Internet Society, 2019.

  5. Internet Society, “Community Networks,”

  6. Steven D’Souza, “’Anti-authority’ tech rebels take on ISPs, connect NYC with cheap Wi-Fi,” CBC, May 03, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/wifi-nyc-mesh-new-york-city-1.4617106

  7. Bliss Broyard, “’Welcome to the Mesh, Brother’: Geurilla Wi-Fi Comes to New York,” New York Times, June 16, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/nyregion/nyc-mesh-community-internet.html?

  8. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: New york city, New York,” United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/newyorkcitynewyork/PST040219

  9. Mark Buell (Regional Vice President, North America at the Internet Society), in Conversation with Georgia Evans, May 24, 2021.

  10. Bliss Broyard, “’Welcome to the Mesh, Brother’: Geurilla Wi-Fi Comes to New York,”

  11. Bliss Broyard, “Welcome to the Mesh, Brother,”

  12. NYC Mesh, “Frequently asked questions,” NYC Mesh, Date Accessed September 14, 2021, https://www.nycmesh.net/faq

  13. Mark Buell (Regional Vice President, North America at the Internet Society), in Conversation with Georgia Evans, May 24, 2021.

  14. NYC Mesh, “Frequently asked questions,”

  15. “Connecting to Sovereignty with the Waimanolo Community Network,” Internet Society, Date Accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.internetsociety.org/issues/community-networks/success-stories/waimanalo/

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Mark Buell (Regional Vice President, North America at the Internet Society), in Conversation with Georgia Evans, May 24, 2021.

  19. Brandon Maka’awaka, “’These Are Our First Roadways’: Internet and Self-Determination in Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo,” Internet Society, October 14, 2019, https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2019/10/these-are-our-first-roadways-internet-access-and-self-determination-in-puuhonua-o-waimanalo/

  20. Mark Buell (Regional Vice President, North America at the Internet Society), in Conversation with Georgia Evans, May 24, 2021.

  21. Ibid.

  22. “ConnectTO program aims to increase digital equity and access to affordable high-speed internet in Toronto,” Toronto, January 21, 2021, https://www.toronto.ca/news/connectto-program-aims-to-increase-digital-equity-and-access-to-affordable-high-speed-internet-in-toronto/

  23. Northern Public Affairs, “An Interview with Bruce Buffalo, Founder of Mamawapowin in Maskwacis, Alberta,” Northern Public Affairs, Date Accessed September 16, 2021, http://www.northernpublicaffairs.ca/index/volume-6-special-issue-2-connectivity-in-northern-indigenous-communities/an-interview-with-bruce-buffalo-founder-of-mamawapowin-in-maskwacis-alberta/

  24. “About the Society,” Mamawapowin Technology Society, Date Accessed September 16, 2021, https://mamawapowin.org/about-mamawapowin-technology-society/

  25. Maureen James (Community Investment Program Manager at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority) in Conversation with Georgia Evans, September 16, 2021.