Today, two million New Yorkers do not have access to the Internet. Mesh, a project designed for the unemployed living on the outskirts of Brooklyn could overthrow the power of the "super providers" by providing free connections or a solid emergency network, as it did in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. House by house, one balcony at a time, this revolution advances one router at a time.
The wireless network formations known as “Mesh” do not require a central server or service provider to offer internet access—instead, they are “knitted” together, router by router. This makes Mesh networks ideal for avoiding connection back-ups during major protests, as happened in Egypt and Hong Kong. It also means that Mesh can offer an emergency network in the case of natural disasters, or, more simply, a way to reach areas that are not covered by regular service providers. Cheap and easy to create, Mesh networks have been available in New York for some years. The goal: to create alternative internet connections, counter the overwhelming power of commercial giants like Comcast, Verizon, or America Online, and ensure internet access to the city’s poorest residents.
American service providers are infamous for poor quality and have faced repeated accusations of deliberately slowing their networks. According to a survey carried out by the PBS, New Yorkers spend $55 per month for a 25 mega-bit per second connection, which is twice what the population of London spends. At the same price, the residents of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris have access to connections that are eight times faster. It is no coincidence that in 2014, New York “won” the dishonorable title of the world metropolis with the worst connection to the world in terms of cost and efficiency, as explained by an investigation by the Los Angeles Weekly.
Today, about 2 million New Yorkers do not have access to the Internet, with the problem mostly affecting the city’s poorest residents. About a third of the New York families below the poverty line do not have internet access. Discussing this problem over a cappuccino, Anthony Schools, Chief Technology Officer of Red Hook Initiative, underlines that, “The problem with the digital divide is that if you do not have access to the Internet it is because you do not have the resources, not because you are uninterested in using the internet. The real question is not being cut off from the world: for example, having a connection allows you to look for work and take better advantage of [possibilities offered by] your neighborhood or your city.”
Anthony’s association has created a community network in Red Hook, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Brooklyn that houses the second largest public housing block after Long Island. Always a popular neighborhood, Red Hook housed the Italian and Irish port workers, until the use of shipping containers dictated the relocation of most port activities to the more spacious New Jersey harbor.
Created in 2011, the Red Hook Mesh aims to support the inhabitants of the neighborhood. As Schools explains: “As an organization focused on young people, we give academic support and provide scholarships. We started with a web radio for kids, but it didn’t seem as if we had a real connection with the community and no one really listened. So we said, what if we create a wireless network?”. Mesh began as nothing more than a “knitted” network of nodes, private routers that act as transmitters, receivers and signal repeaters. This point-to-point connection, in which each user constitutes a node, eliminates the need for a central server or an internet service provider.
In Red Hook, there are now 60 nodes, and on a warm, sunny spring morning, it seems a very quiet place, divided between the single-family one-story homes of "The Back" and the public housing blocks of "The House." Red Hook no longer reflects the image of a place Life magazine once called the “American capital of crack,” but the neighborhood still struggles. Its mainly black and Latino residents are almost entirely isolated from the rest of the city. The neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides and has no nearby subway stations. Unemployment hovers around 21percent, double that of the rest of Brooklyn. According to Schools, people here suffer from problems, "that are endemic to the American system…Half of the population of Red Hook does not have a high school diploma, while 75 percent of young people between 18 and 24 are unemployed. Approximately 7,500 of the 1,000 local residents live in public housing, which is only obtainable if you are jobless or have a low-wage job."
Schools takes on a satisfied air when he tells of how Red Hook Mesh will be useful to the inhabitants of the neighborhood. “When we started, between 40 and 60 percent of residents did not have an internet connection. We trained some young people to maintain the network and in one year, we went from two hotspots to 60. Today, those who do not have the means can use this connection for free in order to try to find work. The idea that everyone benefits is a cue to participate in neighborhood life. Red Hook is a place where there is a great sense of community; people want to roll up their sleeves and help. Everyone has collaborated saying ‘you can use my roof or my house,’ while the younger inhabitants are paid to install and maintain the network.”
The Red Hook Mesh first captured public attention when Hurricane Sandy isolated the neighborhood. The local Mesh remained the only way of communicating and sharing information about the disaster with the outside world—in fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) strengthened the signal to create an emergency communication channel. Today, the network has become a part of a larger program to eliminate the digital divide, initiated by Mayor Bill De Blasio. This has partially changed the spirit of the project, as Schools explains: “At one time it was all focused on ‘local,’ but now there is the support of an entire city. This means that in order to be more effective on a large scale we had to involve private companies. It is no longer just a neighborhood project as it was in the beginning and, although we always maintain control of the project, we have to work with other people, including members of the business community and the authorities.”
But he does not see the transformation of the project into something bigger as a bad thing. "We want to be in all the shopping districts and public housing blocks. My hope is that when all have a connection, we will be able to shift our efforts from building the network to helping people use it to improve their condition."
Of course, it is not only the guys of Red Hook Mesh who are climbing the roofs of New York to provide alternative internet connections.
Starting in the West Village–once the city’s artistic hub, now transformed by gentrification –activists from NYC Mesh are trying to set up a network that will cover Manhattan and the entire city. “The main motivation that made us act was the lack of choice. In New York, you only have very expensive operators like Time Warner or Verizon, which cost much more than they should,” says IT engineer and member of the NYC Mesh, Brian Hall with a smile. We’re meeting in Manhattan’s DBA bar, a restaurant in the West Village that hosts one of the network’s nodes.
Organized through the website meetup.com, the activists of the NYC Mesh (only a dozen people in all) think big and are inspired by a Spanish network, guifi, which is now the largest community network in the world with 30,000 nodes scattered throughout Spain. "Our goal is to become a network that can compete with Time Warner or Verizon, because in the city there is a real need for an alternative to the big providers," Hall explains.
That goal is still a long way off. So far, the New York network only has about forty nodes, although there are about a hundred people on the waiting list. But the network is looking to expand by installing two high-power wireless transmitters that will put an end to problematic signal interruptions. Hall and other activists from the group also intend to create, “super nodes” that will enable NYC Mesh to have direct access to the transatlantic cables that are the “backbone of the Internet.” This would broaden the network range and allow for a direct internet connection without having to install routers at short distances from each other.
Of course, it will take time before Mesh networks can become a real alternative and not just isolated projects for the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods like Red Hook or for small citizen groups like NYC Mesh. And yet, passing from the roof of one building to the balcony of another, this digital revolution continues to advance, one router at a time.
The article was originally published in the Italian Newspaper "Il Manifesto" on May 20, 2016.
Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.
Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.