Mesh networks help people stay connected while avoiding traditional internet providers. Motivation around the country for creating community mesh networks ranges from a desire for social justice, improved information access during natural disasters or just the need to experiment.
A mesh network creates reliable and redundant wireless internet access. Instead of relying on a wired access point to the internet like a traditional network, a mesh network uses wireless radio nodes that speak to each other, thus creating decentralized wireless access points. Because a mesh network does not have to communicate through a central organization (like an ISP), if one node goes down the network will self heal — allowing service to continue without interruption.
You are probably wondering, how is this different than your WiFi at home? For one, mesh networks are actually wireless. If you think of your at-home wireless router, it is wired directly to the internet. Within a mesh network, only one node needs to be hardwired. All the other nodes, of which there could be hundreds, do not require direct access to the internet, just access to the mesh network itself. This allows a mesh network to operate without laying new cable, or as a local network during a service outage.
The application of mesh networks varies depending on need and environment. Here are 12 community mesh networks around the U.S. we checked up on:
Redhook Wifi, Brooklyn
In 2013, when we last checked in, Redhook Wifi had just been tested by Hurricane Sandy. Tony Schloss, the director of community initiatives, gave us an update: “It is clear that having a locally controlled and maintained network is critical in those emergency situations.” However, in non-emergency moments, Schloss questions the overarching value of the mesh network because so many users pay for internet access. No matter how residents connect to the internet, Schloss thinks education is critical. Building off of the Digital Stewards program (see Detroit below), Schloss says their work is ultimately about “creating real opportunities for the young adult participants in career options, social capital, and attitude shifts in their confidence regarding tech.”
Bamboowifi is a wireless internet service provider that operates through a mesh network. Back in January, we reported on Bamboowifi and its then-upcoming Kickstarter campaign. After just a few months, cofounder David Platt already has lessons to share. “General interest has been overwhelmingly positive. Anyone we’ve spoken to about the concept seems very interested in our different approach to providing internet service,” said Platt. Even with this interest, the Kickstarter campaign and recruiting local businesses as hotspots has been slow. Platt believes that they need to build a pilot zone to make the concept concrete for potential partners. All the same, Platt continues to build their project and is looking to potential grant funders and investors to make Bamboowifi a reality.
Fifteen years ago, SMesh sought to create something new: a seamless mesh network. When the project started at Johns Hopkins University, seamless transfer supporting VOIP, for instance, was not an omnipresent option like it is today. After significant experiments at Hopkins, and the development of less expensive technology, the SMesh program now lays dormant. Yair Amir, a Hopkins professor of computer science and member for the SMesh team, points out their code is still open and useable for anyone interested in their work. Amir is not bothered by the project’s passing, “We do research, some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t.” SMesh, he says, was a worthwhile experiment for its time, now his focus is on the next generation of internet services.
Meta Mesh, Pittsburgh
Meta Mesh and PittMesh got started in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. Their aim was to provide a local network that upheld privacy and freedom for its users. Their motivation for increased privacy became acute after it was revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting individual data through backdoors in traditional cloud services and ISPs. The Meta Mesh project requires that all traffic is encrypted. According to a video produced by Meta Mesh, they hope that interest from local innovators and “nerds” will help grow and improve the two-year-old network.
Digital Stewards, Detroit
The Digital Stewards project in Detroit is more than a mesh network — it’s a social movement. Born out of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, the mesh network is just one way they create equal access to media and technology. This work is particularly important in Detroit where a 2012 study reported that 40 percent of residents were without internet access. Beyond maintaining six networks around Detroit, they also developed a curriculum to improve digital literacy. This curriculum is being adopted around the world, including by Redhook Wifi (as mentioned in this article). For Diana Nucera, program director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, it is all about access, no matter where you get it. Nucera points potential mesh network advocates to Commotion’s setup wizard. “You don’t need a B.A. in Information Technology to try out [a community mesh network],” she said.
NYCWireless, New York City
For Dana Spiegel and the folks at NYCWireless, creating a mesh network was about hacking new technology (in 2000) and bringing untapped value to community spaces. “We saw an opportunity to hack together a way to use internet access … to bring communities together into our shared spaces,” said Spiegel. Beyond public spaces, NYCWireless is also putting networks into older buildings. The nodes allow for approximation making implementation much easier than laying new wires. Looking forward, Spiegel is emboldened by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s interest in public internet. NYCWireless promises to be a strong voice advocating for an open and democratic internet.
Personal Telco, Portland, Oregon
After the 2000s dot-com bubble, Portland had a number of unemployed IT people looking for faster internet than what their at-home dialup allowed. Personal Telco wanted to leverage new wireless technology to fix this problem. In the beginning, the problem setting up this network was not the nascent technology, but the trees. The verdant Northwest’s tall evergreens would block the signal, making the network patchy. This challenge turned Personal Telco’s focus to urban (read: less treeful) parts of Portland. “Most of our networks today are stand alone hotspots that someone sponsors,” said Russell Senior at Personal Telco. Senior hopes that Personal Telco and the philosophy behind it will persuade public policy makers that Portland needs a publicly owned internet utility. So far, Senior says, this effort is a work in progress.
MileMesh, Hoboken, N.J.
Hoboken learned how weak the internet is the hard way. After Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey community was frustrated by broken and unresponsive communications infrastructure. As a community organization MileMesh’s goal is simple: cover Hoboken with reliable connectivity. According to their Twitter account, they are just getting started: the first MileMesh node was launched less than a year ago. With a $3,000 grant from NYCWireless, the expectation is to expand throughout Hoboken’s 1.3 square miles. Anthony Townsend, founder of NYCWireless, told TechPresident that expanding mesh networks was not about a starting a company or a project, “We’re trying to start a movement.”
Wasabinet, St. Louis
Wasabinet started as an experiment. Cofounder Ben West explains: “We saw the inherent bottoms-up and all-inclusive spirit of a mesh network like Wasabinet as a natural companion to the bootstrapped cultural and economic revival already taking place [in the Cherokee Street community].” With initial support from the Incarnate Word Foundation, other St. Louis neighborhoods are reaching out to West and his partner, Minerva Lopez, to expand the mesh network footprint. For the time being, however, West is exploring solar-powered nodes to make Wasabinet reliable in a power outage.
TFA Wireless, Houston
Technology for All in Texas aims to close the digital divide for the underserved and vulnerable. Part of this mission, in partnership with Rice University, is TFA Wireless. Started in 2004 and based in Houston’s underserved East End, TFA Wireless has continued to expand. According to their website, by 2011 TFA Wireless had provided the first residential deployment of “Super WiFi,” a long-range, barrier-piercing wireless network. The partnership with Rice has allowed for study of high-impact, low-cost networks and the development of new health-sensing applications in an attempt to catch public health issues early.
Meshnet Project, Seattle
Just a couple of years ago Seattle did not have a mesh network. For Dan Ryan and his colleagues, this was an opportunity. Now, there are a few dozen nodes in Central Seattle and the Ballard neighborhood. On the security side, Meshnet is unique. They use cjdns, a networking protocol that requires that each computer verify itself cryptographically instead of using a single, public IP address. This level of encryption will continue as the project grows and adds cjdns for Android users. Ryan is excited about the project and thinks its value has not been tested yet. “It could potentially play a significant role in future natural disasters [if] traditional networks are nonfunctional,” he said.
La Cañada Wireless Association (LCWA), Santa Fe
The La Cañada De Los Alamos Land Grant area outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico is rural. According to the 2010 census, 434 people lived there. Locally owned and operated by its members, this project provides low-cost internet in an area with lacking infrastructure. Instead of creating a mesh network that covers an entire geographic area, LCWA focuses its nodes to jump directly from an access point to a member’s home. According to their website, this allows an unobscured access point to reach a home up to ten miles away. While it is unclear if the LCWA is still fully functional, the model is none-the-less important to note, because it illustrates the application of mesh networks outside of urban areas.