Community networks are often associated with rural and remote communities, but they often exist in more densely populated areas as well. One example is the Netherlands-based Wireless Leiden, one of the oldest community-run wireless networks in the world. Wireless Leiden is emblematic of what the Internet Society (ISOC) considers to be a healthy and sustainable community network. Established in 2002, the nonprofit initiative has provided wireless connection to the city of Leiden and surrounding rural areas in South Holland. Rather than seeking to entirely replace traditional Internet service providers (ISPs), Wireless Leiden focuses on bringing infrastructure and connectivity to areas that are not served by commercial bandwidth due to low population density. Therefore, it is low-income, elderly, and wayfaring users such as students, campers, and boaters that are most served by the network; however, anyone in need can connect to Wireless Leiden’s networks to get free Internet access.
The network consists of more than 100 wireless servers (“nodes”) that interconnect to create a local network using open-source software. While the network is deeply local, users can use it to connect to the global Internet. The benefit of the localized design is that it can reach areas that broadband companies have not considered profitable to connect with. Furthermore, the local network allows for free local communication among those residing within the region around Leiden.
The success of Wireless Leiden lies in the robust and diverse social network of volunteers and partner organizations that are critical to maintaining the network. Leiden University and local businesses provide the technical knowledge and financial support that make free wireless connectivity possible for all. Training sessions and bi-weekly walk-in consultancies have allowed for the spread of technical proficiency to the broader community, creating users who are at the same time experts able to voluntarily maintain the network. Local businesses freely host and mount antennas on their tall buildings, and Demon Internet has generously donated free Internet access to the initiative for the past 15 years. The result of this multifaceted community effort is high-speed connection in areas that were previously unserved or underserved.
By connecting rural South Holland, Wireless Leiden provides invaluable resources to those living and working in the area. The connectivity allows farmers to use webcams to monitor their crops, while local fishermen use the Internet to get weather updates. Moreover, by focusing on community centers such as schools and libraries, the network has provided free Internet access to young people and the elderly.
By following the principles of community driven wireless connection and insisting on open-source software, Wireless Leiden has generated a vibrant community of users and volunteer-experts to fill in the gaps of an already well-networked country. Wireless Leiden provides a great example of the power of communities to provide free wireless connection to unserved and underserved groups even in countries with high rates of connection.