Internet for the People: The Movement for Affordable, Community-Led Broadband – CNET
Before Marco Antonio Santana could speak English, he was speaking computers. Now, the 32-year-old, who grew up in a Dominican household in New York City, helps provide high-speed fiber internet installations and repairs to over 180 units in a low-income housing complex in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I’ve been a nerd my whole life,” he tells me, running a delicate strand of fiber-optic cable into a splicer in NYC Mesh’s workroom.
We climb to the roof of the 26-story building with striking vistas of the city’s water towers, bridges and prewar buildings. There, multiple long-range antennas and routers connect wirelessly to other rooftop nodes as far out as Brooklyn, miles away across the East River. It’s one glimpse into the growing network that NYC Mesh has built over the last several years.
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NYC Mesh is not an internet service provider, but a grassroots, volunteer-run community network. Its aim is to create an affordable, open and reliable network that’s accessible to all New Yorkers for both daily and emergency internet use. Santana says the group’s members want to help people determine their own digital future and “bring back the internet to what it used to be.”
Internet access is an essential part of our daily lives: for employment, health, education, communication, finances and entertainment. Yet there’s a staggering divide between those who can afford to connect and those who can’t. At least 42 million Americans are estimated to have no access to high-speed internet, according to the data technology company Broadband Now.
The lack of low-cost, reliable broadband options densely weighs on poor, Black, Latino, indigenous and rural communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when being online was the only lifeline, the crisis became even more acute.
“There’s a stark problem of access,” says Prem Trivedi, policy director at the Open Technology Institute. Students doing homework in a fast-food parking lot to get free Wi-Fi is not sustainable. “That’s an intermittent connection that requires upending your life to do bare necessities.”
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Digital equity is a herculean mission. It means going up against the few incumbent ISPs — Xfinity, Spectrum, AT&T, Verizon and the like — that determine prices, terms of service, speeds and where infrastructure is built.
“ISPs are always trying to maximize profits. We are just trying to connect our members for the lowest cost possible,” says Brian Hall, one of the lead volunteers and founders of NYC Mesh.
Historically, when the private market fails to supply access to a basic good, communities have stepped in to fill in the gaps, according to Sean Gonsalves, associate director for communications at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It’s how the electric and telephone cooperatives got started in rural America a century ago,” notes Gonsalves.
Nilges has since become a devoted volunteer for the group, doing installations and writing code. “NYC Mesh is a community. It’s neighbors looking out for each other,” he tells me via the group’s online Slack workspace.
A mesh network is a system of multiple nodes and hubs, also known as access points, that talk to each other via signals from long-range wireless routers and antennas mounted on rooftops. NYC Mesh also has “supernodes” with sector-wide antennas and a fast connection gateway to the internet, often through fiber in the ground. The more devices transmitting data, the further the network can spread.
The concept of meshing is basic to the internet, which started in the late 1960s with four host computer networks and has since grown to billions of devices worldwide. Like a local mesh network, the internet is an intricate web-like structure, where information travels from one point to the next until reaching its destination.
Because mesh networks are decentralized, there’s no single point of failure, and users can find a reliable connection in an emergency situation. If one node is blocked or loses signal, the network automatically finds the most direct available path to send data. “The network is self-healing,” says Dan Miller, an NYC Mesh volunteer. Miller, who works as a computer engineer at an aerospace company, built a mesh hub on his roof and unlocked an entire dead zone to connect residents and businesses in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
To a layperson like myself, the wireless mesh network resembles the NYC subway, a circuitry of stations and routes. Building nodes are the stations connecting to street level, and neighborhood hubs act as the transfer stations, where you can reroute to several different subway lines. Some routes are faster than others, and sometimes inclement weather and aging infrastructure get in the way.
Section of the NYC Mesh map in northwest Brooklyn. The interactive online map shows network coverage around the city in the blue-shaded areas. If you live close to a red dot (a neighbor’s node with an omnidirectional antenna), or if you have “line of sight” to any of the blue dots (a primary hub), you can get connected. NYC Mesh will often connect multiple apartments at a single address or an entire residential building.
Wireless mesh networks rely on line-of-sight connections, which is challenging in a city with a jagged skyline, especially if you lack access to the tallest buildings. Though NYC Mesh delivers signals strong enough for most residential use, rooftop wireless routers are susceptible to interference from rain and wind.
The group is actively trying to set up more fiber-line connections, which provide faster download speeds and greater bandwidth than Wi-Fi. Though fiber-optic infrastructure has a much higher upfront installation cost, it’s more reliable for broadband connectivity over the long term, offering superior performance to legacy infrastructure.
Sharing a neighborhood connection
ISPs like Verizon and AT&T charge customers for data traffic, affixing high prices to rent their equipment and cables. NYC Mesh legally bypasses the commercial ISPs and gets direct access to the internet through a process called peering, when networks connect and mutually share traffic without charge via internet exchange points.
Flyer created by NYC Mesh member to help with neighborhood outreach.
As for cost, new NYC Mesh users purchase the equipment, and the group asks for a one-time $50 fee for the installation and a pay-what-you-can monthly donation to keep the network operating. Hard-core techies often opt for a DIY (“do it yourself”) install, and users request troubleshooting or assistance through the Slack app. “If you have problems, you can message someone and they’ll fix it that day if they can,” Blake tells me.
Anyone is free to join, as long as they keep the network open and extend it to others. Signing up is done through a simple online form, followed by submitting a panoramic rooftop view to see if there’s a clear line of sight to a neighbor’s node or hub.
The “share with your neighbor” spirit makes community-building a central element of any mesh network. NYC Mesh doesn’t have a hierarchy, though there is a core group of around two dozen active installers and administrators. Everyone who buys a router and connects to the network is a member, not a customer. When asked how the group is structured, a typical response is, “alphabetically.”
Volunteers can come and go as they please. The monthly meetups often have a handful who are “fresh to the mesh,” and there’s talk of needing volunteers and publicity to expand to more neighborhoods and boroughs. “It’s all about planting 1,000 seeds and seeing what happens,” said Rob Johnson, a lead installer, during a June presentation on boosting mesh infrastructure in Harlem.
NYC Mesh member Marco Antonio Santana with fiber-optic cable splicing equipment in the group’s workroom. Santana helps with fiber installations and repairs in a three-building, low-income, affordable housing complex, where conduits run to each floor through the trash chutes. NYC Mesh can bring residents online quickly, offering high-speed fiber internet connections for a suggested monthly donation of $10.
Pricing discrimination is also rampant. A 2022 study by Digital Equity LA found that Charter Spectrum offered the best speeds and cheapest prices to the wealthiest neighborhoods, while customers in poorer areas got slower service, higher rates and worse terms and conditions. Another recent study by the Markup found similar examples of digital redlining. Across multiple cities, AT&T, Verizon, Earthlink and CenturyLink provided inferior broadband service to lower-income, Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Insufficient digital access worsens the social and economic isolation in both the inner cities and rural America, according to Chris Vines, grassroots advocacy organizer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Private ISPs don’t have a profit margin to provide internet in these areas,” Vines says.
Mapping the problem
It’s tough to get an accurate gauge of the magnitude of the problem based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband coverage map, long plagued by inaccuracies. The map is notorious for overstating coverage by using flawed metrics and omitting huge swaths of the country. What’s more, the FCC relies on the major ISPs to self-report their figures, allowing them to submit advertised bandwidth, not the actual speeds customers receive, nor the (often cost-prohibitive) rates they would have to pay.
Though the FCC published a more granular map last year, critics say it remains highly problematic. “There are still thousands of locations that should have access to high-speed, reliable internet but aren’t even on the map,” says Gonsalves of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Relying on inaccurate broadband data is also dangerous: The map is used to determine how federal grants for high-speed internet infrastructure will be spent.
For many internet advocacy groups, fixing a broken broadband market means pushing for open-access solutions modeled after Ammon Fiber in Idaho or Utopia Fiber in Utah. With an open-access network, a city or region builds and operates the physical infrastructure as a type of municipal broadband. Multiple providers then compete for subscribers on the network, which can reduce customer costs and boost coverage. In Ammon, for example, residents can choose from a wide selection of national and regional ISPs at affordable prices, with some offering high-speed plans for as low as $10 a month.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Network Map shows a selection of different “community broadband” providers, an umbrella term that often includes municipal broadband networks (owned by local governments), cooperative networks (owned and governed by subscribers), nonprofit networks (built and maintained by community groups) and public-private networks (owned by a community with retail service by a private provider).
A major hurdle to open access is the unrestricted control of the telecom giants, which don’t like competing for market share and have no incentive to support nonprofit alternatives. Comfortable being the only game in town, the incumbent providers consider community broadband networks an “existential threat,” Gonsalves notes.
The private ISPs also have significant lobbying power, which they’ve used to block new business models and limit competition. At least 16 states have “preemption laws” that either outright ban municipal broadband networks or erect legal obstacles to investing in community-led or government-owned networks.
Many of the smaller, volunteer-based networks operating today don’t seem to get a lot of pushback from the major ISPs, perhaps because they’re still viewed as minor players in the market. “It’s a David versus Goliath thing,” says Alex Wermer-Colan from Philly Community Wireless.
Charter, Optimum and Verizon all declined to comment specifically on community-managed broadband groups like NYC Mesh. In terms of the digital divide, the three providers pointed to their participation in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers eligible low-income customers a monthly subsidy of up to $30 toward a broadband subscription and a one-time equipment discount. Yet households at or below the poverty level have faced multiple logistical challenges in getting the subsidy, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Moreover, program funds are expected to be exhausted by summer 2024, which would strip current enrollees of subsidized access. According to Gonsalves, though the ACP is a step forward, it’s a Band-Aid solution that doesn’t address why access is unaffordable in the first place.
Community smart gardens
When NYC Mesh started growing its network nine years ago, it wasn’t alone. An organization called the Red Hook Initiative had set up its own wireless network in late 2011 to provide free, online access to residents in an isolated, majority Black and Latino waterfront neighborhood in western Brooklyn.
Hurricane Sandy slammed into the area in 2012, and the fledgling Wi-Fi network became a life raft to the outside world. The Red Hook community didn’t have access to anything, said Maddy Jenkins, senior communications manager at RHI, who was a teenager when the storm hit. “We didn’t have gas, we didn’t have running water, we didn’t have electricity.”
With a new hub almost overnight, the mesh network gave residents the ability to communicate with relatives and get disaster relief. Over the years, the network reached a peak of 17 access points around local parks and businesses. But its ambitious plan to expand coverage to the entire neighborhood stalled when the pandemic hit in 2020. “So many factors came into play, and the Wi-Fi project’s just not where we would hope it to be,” Jenkins said.
Nonprofit and community groups that want to improve local internet access confront a combination of bureaucratic, technical and financial challenges. A community network has to be self-sustaining, with a large enough support structure and sufficient funding to tackle ongoing maintenance issues and other setbacks.
One group, Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, achieved that by transforming its mesh networking project into a fully fledged nonprofit ISP called Community Internet Solutions in 2022. With access to a sum of capital and new partnerships, it was able to grow the organization and invest in infrastructure, and now has around 120 users around Pittsburgh. Community Internet Solutions aspires to connect 1,000 community members over the next six months, offering low-cost internet access to the most hard-to-serve communities. “Our work is meaningless without the community’s voice,” says executive director Colby Hollabaugh.
Many community-led broadband projects have trouble getting off the ground. In 2020, Steve Williams set off to build a community mesh provider for Los Angeles, modeled after NYC Mesh and focused on providing internet service to the large unhoused population in Venice Beach. Three years later, LAX Mesh is still just a web page and an email list.
“The first step is to bring a community of volunteers together,” Williams told me by email. He wasn’t able to do that, largely due to family and work pressures. But he envisioned the next steps: Set up a proof of concept in a few neighborhoods. Sign up residents to get experience running the network and making it reliable. Engage with communities. Find a nonprofit foundation or other sponsor.