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MIT Technology Review

The volunteers blanketing cities with wireless internet

Before the pandemic, people found creative ways to get around big internet providers. Now they’re doing even more.

wireless internet illowireless internet illo
Rose Wong

On a crisp, sunny morning in August, software engineer Rodrigo Espinosa de los Monteros rode up 22 floors to a stranger’s rooftop in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Willem Boning, an acoustical designer and fellow volunteer for the grassroots wireless project NYC Mesh, was waiting on the roof with two backpacks full of networking equipment. Their destination was a foot-long plastic wireless antenna, shaped like a squared-off satellite dish and mounted on the roof’s edge. The antenna is a “node” in NYC Mesh—a community-owned network of devices that blankets parts of the city with free Wi-Fi.

Directly to the north of Espinosa and Boning loomed the former Verizon building at 375 Pearl Street, now owned by Sabey Data Centers and occupied by workers from the city government and the New York Police Department. NYC Mesh pays rent to data centers like Sabey for the right to build supernodes at key internet gateways, where wireless traffic links up to the rest of the Web. NYC Mesh then distributes the bandwidth wirelessly, giving new internet access options to people who live where the ISP’s service doesn’t reach or is unreliable. NYC Mesh covers its costs with donations from its users.

Without pressure from local competitors, ISPs can force customers in underserved regions to settle for unreliable connections at steep prices.

From the volunteers’ position, a supernode—a multi-­antenna monstrosity responsible for linking much of the network on the Lower East Side to nodes in Brooklyn—was barely visible atop the Sabey building. Before them, in the shadow of the supernode’s signal, lay four residential buildings too short to get an angle on the antennas above them. For the next two and a half hours, Boning and Espinosa, along with another volunteer helping remotely with configuration, would work to create a route for internet traffic to those buildings via the node on the rooftop they had climbed to. “As soon as I learned what the Mesh was,” says Espinosa, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’” 

In Lower Manhattan, which has an underground fiber-­optic network, residents still rely on wireless connections to route their internet from the fiber up to their apartments. For this step, renters are often restricted by building contracts to buying service from a single commercial internet provider. “Even people who can afford their internet are unhappy,” says Jillian Murphy, a university administrator and volunteer admin for NYC Mesh. In January, the mayor’s office released an 88-page report on the “digital divide”; it estimated that some 40% of the city’s households, about 3.4 million people, lack reliable broadband access.

install of NYC Mesh
Net benefit: NYC Mesh has nearly doubled in size every year since 2014 and now has 561 active nodes across the city.
COURTESY OF NYC MESH

NYC Mesh undertook its first project in early 2014. It has nearly doubled in size every year, with 561 active nodes. In the same period, dozens of other community network projects have popped up around the country, filling in where commercial ISPs refuse to upgrade aging fiber. Without pressure from local competitors, ISPs can force customers in underserved regions to settle for unreliable connections at steep prices.

The pandemic has only intensified the need. With much of daily life forced online not just in New York but all over the US, some local communities have been blanketing their neighborhoods in free Wi-Fi to help those who need it most. In San Rafael, California, for example, the working-­class neighborhood of Canal has one of the highest case rates for the novel coronavirus in Marin County, as well as some of the spottiest wireless access. Over the summer, a coalition of activists, government officials, and corporate sponsors scrambled to construct a brand-new urban mesh network in time to bring Canal’s students to their virtual classrooms this fall. The new mesh, Canal WiFi, has since morphed into a multipurpose community platform, offering Canal’s 12,000 residents information in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese on everything from eviction protection to coronavirus tests to immigration support.

A week before Espinosa and Boning met up in Two Bridges, tropical storm Isaias had pummeled the city with wind speeds comparable to those seen in Hurricane Sandy, causing massive power outages. More than 130,000 New Yorkers lost power, some for weeks. The loss of connection became its own disaster, making network resiliency all the more important. Since lockdowns began, interest “has stayed up quite a bit,” Murphy says. “Especially because a lot of people suddenly need better internet, or faster internet, or they lost their job and can’t afford the commercials ISPs anymore.”