Alternative Broadband Networks: Affordable Internet for the People, One Rooftop at a Time – 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.” 

Richard Peterson/CNET

Providing donation-based internet access is part of NYC Mesh’s objective to serve the underserved. The premise is that communication should be free. “We will never disconnect you for payment reasons,” says Hall. 

NYC Mesh also has public Wi-Fi hotspots across the network. Sharing a wireless connection with neighbors is what security technologist Bruce Schneier once referred to as “basic politeness,” akin to providing a hot cup of tea to guests. 

Unlike mainstream ISPs, which monitor online activity and sell data to advertisers, NYC Mesh doesn’t collect personal data, block content or track users. Hall estimates that thousands of people connect every day to the network across over 1,300 different installations. 

NYC Mesh is the largest community-based network in the Americas, and second to the most expansive grassroots mesh network in the world, Guifi, located in Spain. Two decades ago, Guifi started bringing broadband internet to rural Catalonia, and has grown to serve more than 100,000 users. Like NYC Mesh, it’s a bottom-up, volunteer-led initiative that’s based on common internet infrastructure and cost-sharing. 

Three NYC volunteers adjust a wireless antenna on a rooftop Three NYC volunteers adjust a wireless antenna on a rooftop

Dan Miller, Quincy Blake and Willard Nilges adjust a router on a Brooklyn rooftop. New members can join the NYC Mesh network if there is a clear line of sight from their building to an active node or access point.

Richard Peterson/CNET

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,” they tell 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. 

NYC mesh map in a section of brooklyn with bright blue hubs, blue lines and red nodes NYC mesh map in a section of brooklyn with bright blue hubs, blue lines and red nodes

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NYC mesh map in a section of brooklyn with bright blue hubs, blue lines and red nodes NYC mesh map in a section of brooklyn with bright blue hubs, blue lines and red nodes