NYC’s nonprofit DIY internet is taking on Verizon & more

1.5 million New Yorkers lack access to high-speed internet. Can a DIY mesh internet network change that?
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Last year, Danielle would be right in the middle of an exam when the website would stop loading, signaling that her internet went out.

“It was terrible,” Danielle says of the internet she got from her brand-name service provider. (She says it “it rhymed with mectrum and it starts with an s”). Already super unreliable, the issues were only made worse when the pandemic hit and she, along with millions of other students, were forced to continue their education online. 

Danielle’s frustration isn’t unique — millions of Americans are fed up with lackluster internet service. Which begs the question: how can expensive and unreliable internet dominate a market? 

The major telecom internet providers have essentially carved up New York City, where Danielle lives, and other areas into fiefdoms, where customers have no choice in who provides their internet.

Or had no choice.

One non-profit is looking to challenge the top dogs by providing people like Danielle with another option of where they get their internet. And they’re doing so by building an internet infrastructure that is cheaper and potentially more reliable. 

“What they [major internet providers] give you for the price is so bad, and so unusable, that at one point you just have to stand up and say there’s got to be a better way,” says Daniel Heredia, a NYC Mesh member and volunteer. 

NYC Mesh thinks the answer may be a decentralized, community-driven internet network — a “mesh” — that can service city residents for little to no cost. 

The Digital Divide

The neighborhoods with the most options for their internet service providers — and therefore not only the best access, but the best prices — tend to be among the city’s wealthiest.

“For profit business — it just goes where the money is,” says NYC Mesh founder Brian Hall. 

Research from the NYC mayor’s office reveals that “a map of internet service rates in New York City bears a striking resemblance to a map of poverty rates.” 

Neighborhoods that don’t have service options from all the major internet providers can end up paying exorbitant prices for crucial internet service. With no competition, the providers have no incentive to lower costs. 

“The cable companies realize there’s no other option in your area,” Heredia says. “What are you going to do?”

And that’s if the neighborhood is lucky enough to have any providers at all.

According to the city’s research, 40% of households lack either home or mobile broadband connection. And over 1.5 million New Yorkers lack both. This digital divide throws up massive barriers to education, employment, health, banking, social networking, and government service options.

By taking the internet out of the hands of a few for-profit businesses, a mesh internet may be one path to make universal broadband access possible.

What is Mesh Internet?

To understand the idea of a mesh internet, it helps to have a picture of how you’re most likely reading this story. 

In a traditional system, an internet service provider, like Verizon or Spectrum, provides internet access to you through a specific access point — the main router. When Spectrum installs that router in your house, you are essentially paying for your own, password protected gateway to the internet.

In a mesh internet network, a single router isn’t the only fountain from which the web flows. Instead, mesh internet is built by connecting multiple wireless routers (called nodes). 

When a person joins NYC Mesh, a volunteer tech is sent out to their home. The volunteers install wireless router antennas on rooftops or balconies, which connect with other nearby nodes. Taken together, these create the mesh internet network, an invisible net free from the control of any one internet service provider (ISP). 

The internet originates at large, powerful facilities called data centers. Major ISPs receive their internet from these data centers; NYC Mesh does too. They pay for space in these places, then shoot the internet out through powerful “supernodes,” tapping into the same flow as the ISP companies do. Other supernodes are set up in other points of the mesh as well. The supernodes connect to the regular nodes, all of which connect together to provide mesh internet access. 

Mesh Internet Benefits

According to NYC Mesh, their mesh internet approach provides numerous advantages. First and foremost: it’s low cost, a key concern for closing the digital divide. NYC Mesh’s service fees are donation based, with the organization suggesting $20-60 depending on what a member can afford. It’s free for those who cannot afford to donate.

“We keep our costs really low, and if your card gets canceled, we’ll never cut you off. If you can’t afford internet, you still should get internet.”

Brian Hall

The nodes create public wifi hotspots, providing mesh internet access not just to community members, but people near the nodes. And unlike ISPs that throttle upload speeds to focus on download speeds — normally an internet user’s main concern — NYC Mesh provides fast upload speeds as well, for people to be able to put things out into the world as easily as they download them. 

With each node that joins, a mesh internet network becomes stronger and more widely available; it’s mainly a question of scale. As community members join and NYC Mesh volunteers install their nodes, the mesh internet network becomes more reliable and accessible, and a more viable and valuable option for closing the digital divide.

“No one in this country thought we could do [internet] infrastructure with a community group, and we’re doing it.”

Brian Hall

“You can do amazing things just by organizing.”

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