Volunteers cover New York with WiFi

On a clear, sunny August morning, software developer Rodrigo Espinosa de los Monteros drove 22 stories up to the roof of a house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Willem Boning, acoustic designer and volunteer for the grassroots WiFi project NYC Mesh, was already waiting upstairs. He had two backpacks full of network devices with him. Their goal on the roof was a foot-length wireless plastic antenna on the edge of the roof: a “node” in the community’s own device network that supplies parts of the city with free WiFi.

It took Espinosa and Boning two and a half hours to use this node to connect four lower skyscrapers to the closest super node on the even higher Sabey Building. Without this intermediate node, the low houses were in the signal shadow of the supernode, which is responsible for connecting much of the network on the Lower East Side with Brooklyn.

NYC Mesh pays data centers like Sabey Data Centers a fee for the right to place super nodes on major Internet gateways that allow wireless traffic to connect to the rest of the web. NYC Mesh then distributes the bandwidth wirelessly and thus offers people in areas Internet access that is not served at all or only unreliably by Internet providers. NYC Mesh covers its costs through voluntary contributions from its users. Instead of individual tenants, NYC Mesh connects entire houses in one piece. Those who cannot pay will still be taken care of. The income from the voluntary contributions still extends over thousands of dollars in data center fees and material costs for steady expansion, says administrator Scott Rasmussen.

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In Lower Manhattan, which has an underground fiber optic network, residents still rely on wireless connections to route their internet from fiber to their apartments. Tenants are usually bound to individual internet providers by building contracts. But they often refuse to upgrade aging fiber optic connections and on top of that collect a lot of money for the unreliable connections – and thus contribute to the digital divide. A report released by City Hall in January estimated that around 40 percent of New York households, with around 3.4 million people, lack reliable broadband access.

This is where NYC Mesh comes in. Since the beginning of 2014, the volunteer project, which is based on different European models such as the German Freifunk and the Spanish Guifi, has set up 561 active nodes. NYC Mesh is growing particularly fast: its number of nodes doubles almost annually. At the same time, dozens of other community network projects across the country fill the gaps that commercial providers don’t care about. The pandemic has further increased the need. “Interest is particularly high because many people working from home need better or faster Internet at home or the commercial providers can no longer afford them because they have lost their jobs,” says Jillian Murphy, another administrator of NYC Mesh.

“NYC Mesh has managed to become a permanent community network,” says Rasmussen. The decisive factor here is the steady influx of volunteers who are being trained as technicians, and that the organization is “financially independent and not dependent on funding”.


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