The paper focuses on the link between regional development, social enterprise and digital infrastructure, through analysis of an initiative in Goulburn NSW, in which local entrepreneurs rigged up a wi-fi network, providing free internet access to the public in the city’s main street.
Public wi-fi, like open source software, the DIY and hacker movement, can be understood as ‘inverse infrastructure’: an emergent challenge to the modernist conception of infrastructure as centrally-provided large-scale technical systems such as electricity and water utilities (Egyedi et al. 2012). Inverse infrastructures may be enterprise-level responses to state or market failure, such as municipal broadband, or less formal citizen-based activities, such as community wireless networks. Such community-level initiatives are not necessarily demonstration sites of civic affiliation or bespoke provision. They involve competing interests, wavering volunteer commitment to repair and maintenance and the myriad disruptions caused by physical environments and human actions.
Our research maps the links between the human, material and institutional actors that make up the Goulburn network: the physical site, equipment and design artefacts, and the civic, commercial and association transactions associated with the enterprise. We track how community and local commercial interests used the affordances of the market, working within existing market structures to create a commercial commonality in the public interest. As the vision of a national broadband network fades, impacting on the thin telecommunications markets of regional Australia, we may see increasing ‘bottom- up broadband’ activism. Stories such as this one may support a more pragmatic understanding of these emergent public-private initiatives.