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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
By publishing extensive documentation on installation procedures, equipment and technical implementation, NYC Mesh offers a blueprint for other community broadband projects. Its website is a treasure trove of open-source materials for groups to replicate and adapt.
Take, for example, Philly Community Wireless, which started establishing much-needed Wi-Fi hotspots in areas around Philadelphia during the pandemic. Now connecting up to 100 active devices daily in conjunction with PhillyWisper, a local independent ISP, Philly Community Wireless also works with local organizations to distribute computers to residents and to install solar power and PurpleAir monitors at community gardens.
The model shows communities how to take control and build out alternative digital ecosystems. “You aren’t just a passive consumer of this utility, but an active participant in its construction and sustenance,” says Alex Wermer-Colan, the group’s executive director.
Growing a mesh metropolis
On a hot afternoon in early August, two NYC Mesh volunteers adjust a newly mounted router on the roof of a four-story brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. There’s a direct line of sight to another node half a kilometer away, so the path for transmitting signals between the two wireless antennas is clear. Quincy Blake, the lead installer bearing a backpack and a wispy ponytail, tests the signal strength on his phone, then moves the router another couple of centimeters until he finds the sweet spot.
Within an hour, a cable drops down from the roof to connect with the home router in Willard Nilges’ apartment. Nilges, a programmer by day, now has about double the upload speed they had with Spectrum for a fraction of the cost.
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.
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.
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.
There are numerous ways to get involved, from crimping wires to outreach, and no technical experience is required. Volunteers learn in the wild how networks run, how cables work, how devices are configured. That hands-on engagement is one way NYC Mesh demystifies the internet.
Internet giants versus local pioneers
New York City has over 8.5 million people, more than twice the population of Los Angeles. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 1.5 million residents across the Big Apple, disproportionately living in poverty, had neither a home nor a mobile internet connection. It would take tons more funding and outreach, and a critical mass of volunteers, for NYC Mesh to provide service to all low-income and marginalized communities.
In January 2020, the New York City government released an ambitious universal broadband plan to build city-owned, fiber-optic infrastructure that could be shared with multiple internet operators, including NYC Mesh. Yet the budget to support small, local providers hit a dead end, and the plan was abandoned.
Two and a half years later, a new administration penned a revised proposal to grant free cable internet to thousands of Section 8 housing residents. In partnership with Charter (Spectrum) and Altice (Optimum), the city’s Big Apple Connect Program gives the cable giants billions in subsidies to provide service based on outdated, legacy infrastructure.
“The big incumbent private providers are extracting wealth from communities and not giving them a say in terms of outcomes,” says Sean Gonsalves, who works with the ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative.
Across the US, the internet market is dominated by this oligopoly, notorious for service throttling, high prices and lack of transparency. In 2018, Spectrum (formerly known as Time Warner Cable) was forced to pay out over $174 million in a settlement for ripping off millions of customers across New York. The state attorney general’s lawsuit alleged that, for at least five years, Time Warner Cable deliberately delivered slower speeds and inferior service than advertised.
“A big reason for customer dissatisfaction is the overriding sense that broadband providers are taking advantage of us,” says Trey Paul, a senior editor at CNET covering broadband.
ISPs will often lure customers in with competitive rates and then hike them a year later — in some instances over 200%. It’s also standard practice for the major providers to charge hidden fees for equipment rental and maintenance, leaving customers with a more expensive monthly bill than what’s advertised, Paul says.
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.
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.
Preserving momentum via a steady influx of volunteers is another challenge, even for active groups that have successfully built local connections and business partnerships, like Philly Community Wireless. “We have so much demand for installations, it’s kind of beyond the capacity of our volunteers,” explains Wermer-Colan. Another stumbling block is obtaining access to buildings to host more mesh antennas.
Though a number of grassroots broadband projects haven’t been able to scale up, they’ve laid an earnest groundwork. In the Boston area, Mass Mesh was driven by a desire to provide net-neutral, community-controlled access shortly after the FCC dumped net neutrality in 2017. (Without net neutrality, ISPs have the explicit right to block, discriminate, slow down and charge for specific online content.) But Mass Mesh hasn’t been able to expand beyond six active nodes due to supply chain shortages of its key router equipment. Founder James O’Keefe says the group hopes to restart its rollout in 2024.
Another group is the Personal Telco Project in Portland, Oregon, which started over two decades ago and operates multiple, free open-access networks around the city. At its peak, the small nonprofit built out around 140 hotspot networks — it now has about 40 active nodes. Over the last several years, the Personal Telco Project has pushed for the local government to invest in a countywide fiber network, acting more like an “internet freedom organization,” according to the group’s president, Russell Senior.
Senior says the digital divide will never be solved by leaving broadband incumbents in a position of power: “The only way to subsidize the people who can’t afford broadband is to control costs. And the only way to control costs is to have publicly owned infrastructure.”
No one actually owns the internet. This vast, global, decentralized system of interconnected networks doesn’t belong to any single government, utility company, tech monopoly or telecommunications provider.
Except the entities controlling infrastructure, servers, data centers, web browsers and hardware determine if and how we exchange information. We live in a society where only a handful of corporations possess the capital and power to shape our digital futures.
During NYC Mesh’s monthly meetup in July, one of the core members, Daniel Heredia, asks attendees to brainstorm ideas for doing outreach in areas of need so they can close the broadband gaps. During the last slide, the battery on Heredia’s computer dies, and the screen goes black. “More tech, more problems, right?” he jokes.
Internet access — the most significant technological development of the modern era — shouldn’t be a luxury. Community-led broadband organizations like NYC Mesh won’t overcome the divide on their own, but they can ensure more people get the right to participate in their daily lives. And they can offer a glimpse into what things might look like if there was free broadband for all.
Correction, Sept. 25: This story originally misstated which company was sued by the state of New York over the internet speeds and service delivered compared with what was advertised. The company sued by New York was Time Warner Cable before it was folded into Spectrum.
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