Geeks, Cowboys, and Bureaucrats: Deploying Broadband, the Wireless Way

28 February 2016

The advent of new unlicensed wireless technologies allows a variety of new actors – from co-operatives to municipalities – to deploy and operate communication networks. This article reviews the evolution of the new breed of wireless technologies, in particular Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi), and discusses its implications for the architecture and control of emerging wireless broadband networks. Drawing on the social constructivist history of large technical systems and the work of economic historians concerned with the evolution of technology, the article explores the largely unexpected success of Wi-Fi. It then reviews the evidence to date on the bottom-up deployment of wireless networks by local actors in the United States, focusing on three types of initiatives driven by different deployment dynamics: end-user co-operatives (the “geeks”), wireless internet service providers (“cowboys”), and municipal government (“bureaucrats”). The conclusion discusses the policy and institutional issues most likely to affect the balance between centralised and decentralised deployment of wireless broadband networks in the near future, and suggests possible implications for the developing world.