Meta Mesh Wireless Communities is looking for people who want free Wi-Fi.
The Allentown-based nonprofit specializes in the development of a wireless internet service provider, or WISP for short. That technology allows Meta Mesh to provide communities with cost-effective Wi-Fi through the use of high-powered, long-distance radios that can transmit bandwidths from connection hubs, like the one it has atop the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.
Technical.ly reported on the organization’s progress, and the technology behind its free-to-the-end-user internet, earlier this summer. Now, after spending the last few months deploying even more of its relay towers, antennae, routers and other relevant technology, Meta Mesh has officially launched its Every1online initiative — an effort to close Pittsburgh’s digital divide with cost-effective residential internet through WISPs.
“We had spent the better part of 2020, int0 the first half of 2021, finishing up the infrastructure builds that were required to get signal from where it was to where we needed to be,” Sam Garfinkel, Meta Mesh’s interim executive director, told Technical.ly this week. “And so we finally concluded a good amount of that infrastructure so that we were able to finally service people.”
The first install of Every1online occurred in Coraopolis over the summer, and Garfinkel said Meta Mesh has since been able to get around 15 residences online. Cornell School District, which is located in the Coraopolis borough, will fund a year of internet service costs to a total of 25 homes in the area. The Every1online program is different from Meta Mesh’s other, ongoing non-residential efforts to provide internet to non-residential customers.
Since that first full launch of the program, Meta Mesh has expanded Every1online to Homewood, where the nonprofit had already set up a relay tower. The service there will be provided across three antennae, which Meta Mesh estimates can support about 50 homes each. Signups for free internet provided by Meta Mesh in Homewood are currently open, and the only qualification is that the residence is located in a service area.
“You don’t need to have a school-aged child in the home, you don’t need to have any kind of income information,” Garfinkel added. “We’re really opening up registration to anyone who lives in the service area.”
While establishing Every1online in Homewood, Garfinkel said, the Meta Mesh team noticed the potential for service from one antenna to reach nearby Wilkinsburg. Plans to bring the same free internet through WISPs to that area are in early stages as Meta Mesh works on expanding the needed infrastructure to that area, she said.
Beyond officially launching residential service for the Pittsburgh area, Meta Mesh also finalized voting on its nonprofit board of directors, led by Heidi Norman, the acting director and CIO at the City of Pittsburgh Department of Innovation and Performance. Joining her as VP of the board is Stan Waddell, the VP for information and technology and the CIO at Carnegie Mellon University.
Having those connections to public and academic institutions will be important for a young organization like Meta Mesh, Garfinkel emphasized, adding that it will likely be a few years before the board can take a more passive role in guiding the company. In the near future especially, their input will be needed with the (hopefully) soon-to-pass infrastructure bill, which allocates a historic tens of billions of dollars to broadband resources.
Stay tuned for what that legislation will mean for Meta Mesh.
“It’s a big moment for digital divide workers across the country, and we still have to see how that all gets to the states in the organizations that will then apply for those funds,” Garfinkel said. “But we will be putting out some public-facing communications [when it passes], updating everybody about this kind of momentous occasion.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.