A novel approach to internet service has plans for major growth in Pittsburgh in the new year.
Today, internet accessibility nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities announced that it received a $1.4 million grant led by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Hopper-Dean Foundation. The new funding will go toward the continuation and expansion of the organization’s Every1online program, which provides local communities with free internet access through wireless internet service provider (WISP) technology. So far, the program operates in Homewood and Coraopolis, with partial launches in New Kensington and Wilkinsburg.
The grant, led by a $1.13 million contribution from the Hillman Foundation, will enable Meta Mesh to add at least 11 new communities to its roster in 2022, with the goal of bringing a total of 1,000 people online by the end of the year — a 10-times increase from its current 100 end users.
“Basically, they have funded our operations for the next three years,” Meta Mesh Executive Director Sam Garfinkel told Technical.ly. She added that the grants will allow the nonprofit to move past the pilot stage of its technology rollout into an established organization that can offer sustained support to the communities it serves.
While Meta Mesh is currently reliant on contributed sources of funding like grants, Garfinkel emphasized that the hope is to use the next few years as a chance to hone its revenue model so that around 80% is generated from managed network services and sponsorship of the Every1online program.
"There's really been such a collaborative and sincere togetherness in this venture so far."
That transition is a move that could help Meta Mesh’s survival in the long term, as former incubator and household name in local entrepreneurship, Work Hard Pittsburgh, recently announced its winding down after being unable to attract needed philanthropic dollars. Meta Mesh, Garfinkel said, is hyper aware of that dilemma, given that Work Hard was an early supporter of the nonprofit.
“Of course, we’ll have to build to that level,” she said. “But in that scenario, we still will be looking to contributed sources like our donors and foundation supporters for that 20% additional [support] especially when it comes to things like capital costs.”
One thing that won’t change for Meta Mesh is its ability to offer free internet to its end users. Garfinkel added that the organization doesn’t even ask for payment information from those looking to participate in the program: “That’s very intentional, because there are a lot of reasons why individuals can be disenfranchised from the digital world,” she said. “So instead of trying to solve all of those individual problems, we do what we can by independently building out our infrastructure to reach communities with documented need for those services.”
Beyond adding new communities to its roster for Every1online, Meta Mesh will be hiring for new roles across its burgeoning business development and administration teams, as well as for field installers to build the needed infrastructure. Those plans come after a year where executive roles and the nonprofit’s board of directors were finalized, including representation from Carnegie Mellon University and the City of Pittsburgh’s Innovation and Performance Department.
“We have gone through a period of metamorphosis over the last couple of years,” Garfinkel said. Now, she continued, Meta Mesh feels like it’s a place of stability where it can focus on the goals and specific needs of its new business model for providing internet service. The organization’s progress over the last year has Garfinkel starting the new year with a sense of gratitude for the support and patience Meta Mesh received from its communities, strategic partners and vendor partners, she said.
“There’s really been such a collaborative and sincere togetherness in this venture so far,” Garfinkel continued. “And in my view, this is when the work really begins.”
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.-30-