I am speaking today at the Muniwireless Conference in Santa Clara, CA, on a panel on "How successful community projects can help to develop, implement, & expand municipal wireless networks."

The other people on the panel are awesome and I'm honored to be sharing the stage with them: Becca Vargo Daggett from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Richard MacKinnon from Austin Wireless, and Matt Rantanen of the Tribal Digital Village Network; Jeff Perlstein from Media Alliance is the moderator.

The panel is part of a track on community issues and open source tools organized by Sascha Meinrath. As I wrote yesterday, we form a narrow sliver of community advocates at a conference with many hardware vendors, venture capitalists, industry consultants, and municipal officials.

I expect Richard and Matt to discuss their specific community projects and Becca to focus on the economic implications of municipal ownership. I want to talk about how we've gone from community to municipal to corporate control of the networks and what we are losing as a result.

In an age where companies like AT&T are attempting to use their ownership of a portion of the network essentially to close the entire internet, it seems to me that we need to look at wireless networks as a critical opportunity to regain some leverage. If we hand this opportunity over to corporations like Earthlink, we will be outsiders looking in, forever hoping to be included.

This comes at a moment when more and more of our public life is taking place online. This is a standard argument for closing the digital divide, but the implications are much broader than that when we consider the way poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers are excluded from the Internet in the United States.

To the extent we digitize the public sphere, we exacerbate the racial and economic divides already prevalent in our society. It's the new Jim Crow.

My friend Antwuan Wallace recently observed this at the YearlyKos conference in Las Vegas, where Democratic Party heavyweights addressed the "netroots." The netroots is whiter and more male than the offline "grassroots" it is supplanting or, at best, augmenting. The experience motivated Antwuan to start blogging. In his first post, he writes that "telecommunication policy is the new civil rights legislation."

I would not argue that we should halt the process, even if we could. The internet still offers the promise of a broader, more participatory democracy. That's what I mean by "digital expansion." It's the two steps forward we need to take now, as the prioritization of online civic engagement over offline takes us one step back.

This is why it is so important that we secure wireless networks as public spaces and it shows the importance of community wireless.

Community wireless – and not just civic projects, but networks with true community involvement and ownership – is the vehicle for bringing people online and into the digitized public sphere. In my view, this is how they can "develop, implement, & expand municipal wireless networks."