‘Welcome to the Mesh, Brother’: Guerrilla Wi-Fi Comes to New York
NYC Mesh, a band of a few dozen tech volunteers, takes on Verizon and the big “incumbent providers,” with the promise of inexpensive community internet.,
Daniel Heredia working this spring to bring inexpensive Wi-Fi to a building in Brownsville, Brooklyn.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
By Bliss Broyard
- July 16, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
Daniel Heredia peered across rooftops, surveying the derelict satellite dishes and rusty television antennas of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Wearing a motorcycle jacket and boots, he crouched on Andre Cambridge’s roof, trying to see if he had a clear line of sight to the Riverdale Avenue Community School a half-mile off. A large tree was possibly in the way.
Mr. Cambridge, a 28-year-old student who lives with his parents and younger brother in an apartment on the first floor, watched the scene apprehensively. He had been without internet for nine weeks. “Man,” Mr. Heredia said, “you should have told us.” He could have moved up the installation.
Mr. Heredia is a 19-year-old volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, and he was there to install a router that would bring inexpensive Wi-Fi to the building. Mr. Cambridge’s family said they had become fed up with the take-it-or-leave-it pricing for spotty service that internet providers seem to get away with in this part of Brooklyn.
Mr. Heredia crouched to affix the router to a plumbing vent, positioning it so the Wi-Fi signal could avoid the tree down the block. An app on his phone beeped to indicate the strength of the connection. Higher in pitch and more rapid was good. Mr. Cambridge whipped out his phone to search for NYC Mesh among the available networks. “It just came up!”
He skipped across the roof, beaming under Ray bans and dreadlocks. The installation took two hours and cost $240 to cover the equipment, plus a $50 tip for Mr. Heredia, the installer.
Mr. Cambridge ran a speed test. “We’re getting 80 megabits down and 50 megabits up!”
Mr. Heredia clasped palms and bumped shoulders with Mr. Cambridge. “Welcome to the Mesh, brother,” he said.
In New York, like most big cities, the wealthier a neighborhood is, the more options for internet service its residents probably have — and the more incentive for providers in those areas to compete on service and price. On some blocks on the Upper West Side, residents can choose among four carriers. In Brownsville, Mr. Cambridge could choose between Altice or Optimum — which is owned by Altice. Verizon’s fiber-optic service, Fios, is supposed to be available on every city block, which in theory would spur more competition, but that has yet to happen.
While a fiber connection remains the gold standard, “fixed wireless” options like the rooftop routers used by NYC Mesh can deliver a signal that is plenty strong for most residential uses and usually much faster and cheaper to deploy. NYC Mesh has a subsidized option for installations, and members pay a suggested monthly donation of $20 to $60.
NYC Mesh is one of many fixed-wireless outfits in New York City. They range from community-owned models — like the D.I.Y. “internet in a box” efforts led by the digital justice organization Community Tech NY, and the internet cooperative People’s Choice, started by former Spectrum strikers — to smaller for-profits like Starry, a Boston-based start-up rolling out flat-rate internet plans of $50 a month in large urban markets including New York City.
NYC Mesh covers more neighborhoods than the others and is the largest community network in the city by far. Yet it’s still small, serving only about 800 households, concentrated in Lower Manhattan and central Brooklyn. That’s a tiny slice of the 2.2 million New York City households with broadband at home, usually through one of the “incumbent providers,” as they are known: Verizon, Spectrum or Optimum.
But with NYC Mesh’s expansion into Brownsville, and a new contract with the city to place routers on a handful of housing developments, the one million New Yorkers who don’t have broadband — 46 percent of households in poverty lack a home connection — might soon have another, more affordable choice. “To grow, we need to be on more tall buildings,” said Brian Hall, the founder of NYC Mesh. The pandemic has actually helped his initiative get there, and it might encourage New Yorkers to think about the internet in a new way — as a utility that everyone should be able to access.
Community Wi-Fi networks have been operating in other countries since the early 2000s. It’s a relatively niche phenomenon. The biggest community network in the world is Guifi.net in Spain, and that has only 39,000 connections. Still, it was an inspiration to Mr. Hall when he was starting NYC Mesh back in 2014. Burned out from his job as a programmer, he wanted to do something community-based that could have an impact.
Mr. Hall secured funding from the Internet Society, an international nonprofit that promotes open and secure internet around the world, to set up NYC Mesh’s first “supernode” on top of the former Verizon building in downtown Manhattan. This supernode, plus another in Industry City, on the Brooklyn waterfront, serve as the central spigots for NYC Mesh’s neighborhood hubs and nodes, as they refer to the members’ routers.
Early supporters were mostly tech-liberationist types. “Initially everyone united around hating Time Warner Cable,” Mr. Hall said. A manifesto on NYC Mesh’s website lists the reasons members were behind community Wi-Fi: to build a neutral network that doesn’t block content or sell personal data; to bridge the digital divide; and to “stand in opposition to the telecom oligopoly in New York of Verizon, Optimum and Spectrum.”
There are no paid employees. A team of 30 or so volunteers, about a third of them women, lead installations and maintain the network. A recent installation at a housing development in Bedford-Stuyvesant that Mr. Heredia helped lead included a 50-year-old coder/actor/carpenter, a 40-year-old Turkish woman who ran a tech company back home, a 26-year-old with a fellowship to study the digital divide from the Robin Hood Foundation (whose family used to live in that very complex), and a father with a week-old baby whose wife had given him permission to go.
Organizing occurs on the online platform Slack, with the work documented on public channels for the benefit of other groups interested in starting community Wi-Fi projects. The pandemic brought a rush of volunteers along with requests from people needing help to get communities connected, including one from an intrepid social worker from the Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brownsville. After setting up that hub, Mr. Heredia and another volunteer installed routers in the hallways of the family homeless shelter across the street.
Around that time, NYC Mesh members were already in negotiations with the New York City Housing Authority about putting a hub on a 24-story tower in Bed-Stuy. It would extend the nonprofit’s coverage area to less-gentrified parts of Brooklyn — hundreds of buildings within a two-mile radius of the hub could get internet. It wouldn’t cost the city anything. NYC Mesh simply needed permission. There was reason to be optimistic.
In January 2020, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio released its Internet Master Plan, an ambitious reimagining of the city’s broadband infrastructure. The plan offers free use of the rooftops of public buildings and streetlight poles to providers large and small to build out their network infrastructures. This strategy amounts to a thumb on the scale in favor of grass-roots outfits like NYC Mesh, whose technology depends on rooftop access versus the larger providers, who must bury their cable or string it from telephone poles.
Brian Dietz, a spokesman from the industry lobbying group NCTA — the Internet & Television Association — maintained that commercial broadband is the best for consumers. “It provides the fastest, most reliable service for the best value,” Mr. Dietz said. “We have made billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure and speeds have increased thousands of times over the last decade.”
Before the recent vision, the city’s last major broadband intervention was negotiated under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2006. New York entered a franchise agreement with Verizon that gave the company the privilege of burying fiber-optic cable under city streets in exchange for installing high-speed Fios in every neighborhood. But Verizon has failed to do so in many low-income neighborhoods. In a public hearing in April, the city’s chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer, testified that the relatively few providers in some neighborhoods meant that there was little market pressure to bring the prices down. “The current oligopolistic system is broken, and it has built digital inequity into the streets and neighborhoods of New York,” he said.
The city recently reached a settlement with Verizon, requiring it to connect an additional 500,000 households, with at least 125,000 in underserved neighborhoods, by 2023.
Chris Serico, a spokesman for Verizon, said the company was on track to meet the terms of its settlement. “Verizon is committed to finding long-term solutions that make affordable broadband options available to low-income Americans,” Mr. Serico wrote in an email.
Clayton Banks, the chief executive of Silicon Harlem, a company focused on increasing connectivity in Harlem, said he hoped that the city’s strategy of betting on more competition would work, but that he was waiting to see how Fios and the current providers would be priced. “If you continue to build out infrastructure, which is certainly welcome and necessary, but you keep the same retail price,” he said, “you haven’t solved anything in terms of getting more people online.”
After months of back and forth, NYC Mesh got the greenlight to put a hub on the 24-story public housing tower in Bed-Stuy, along with two other developments in the Bronx and Queens. Four other small providers, including Silicon Harlem, were selected to wire up 10 other NYCHA developments. As part of Phase One of the Internet Master Plan, to which the city will direct $157 million, NYC Mesh installed free public hot spots around the exterior grounds of the projects; the other companies must provide residents access to Wi-Fi in their apartments for no more than $20 a month.
NYC Mesh has applied to establish hubs on an additional 163 public buildings as part of Phase Two. If successful, this would allow NYC Mesh to cover much of the city in the next five to seven years. Since each router installation comes with a free public Wi-Fi hot spot, NYC Mesh could help make the internet truly universal throughout New York City.
Even as NYC Mesh has continually grown, it still runs into the same trouble as the big providers: The internet sometimes goes down. Mr. Heredia and other volunteers pride themselves on resolving service problems quickly, but as the organization expands, it will need more people like Mr. Heredia if it wants to keep members happy.
Mr. Heredia has been volunteering since last October, when he stumbled across NYC Mesh online when researching alternatives to commercial providers. After setting up a router using NYC Mesh’s instructions, he attended a socially distanced meet-up in a Brooklyn park. A half-dozen installs later, Mr. Heredia got his own cable-crimping set and became an install leader.
He also helps maintain the network, particularly the hub on top of a NYCHA building in Bed-Stuy that supplies his internet. A few months back, the power went out at Mr. Heredia’s hub. It turned out the building’s custodians were repairing the elevator and had shut off some breakers. Mr. Heredia (who is a full-time student with a part-time job) sped over on his motorcycle with a long extension cord and battery packs, and had it working again an hour and 15 minutes after the first complaint came in on the NYC Mesh Slack channel. “All the people I know in the Mesh who participate actively have a similar relationship,” he said about his own vested interest in maintaining the network.
But the people who use the free hot spots in public housing or the family shelter in Brownsville don’t know how to fix the equipment or where to request a repair or report an outage on Slack. Indeed, all but one of the hallway routers in the shelter have been out for the last couple of months, and a number of new ones at the Bed-Stuy tower keep going offline. There’s an issue with the devices that Mr. Heredia and other volunteers have spent hours trying to figure out.
The future for Mesh relies on cooperation with members, but it’s a hard sell in certain neighborhoods. First, not all renters can put routers on the roofs of their buildings. Some people are suspicious of “free internet” and won’t use the hot spots. NYC Mesh volunteers acknowledge that they need community members from the underserved neighborhoods to take the same ownership over their hubs as Mr. Heredia does over his.
Brownsville’s newest member, Andre Cambridge, might be up for the task. A week after his installation, Mr. Cambridge told me that his speeds had been good and that he hadn’t experienced any problems. His mother even suggested that they should up their monthly donation from $20 to support the cause.
He said he was excited but also wary about Mesh’s future. He had seen other community solutions get up and running only to be squashed by regulation and corporate interests. He suggested that if the government really wanted to help, it should fund training for volunteer installs, subsidize hardware costs and pay for network education so community members would understand the hubs they would be stewarding.
In the meantime, Mr. Cambridge said he was prepared to do his part to take care of his new hub. “If you had a community well back in the day, you had to maintain it,” he said. “Eventually I’m going to be like, ‘What’s the network map on this, what’s my upkeep look like?’ I’m part of a system, so I have to be. I’m going to advocate for my neighbor. ‘Hey, would you like to join the system too?'”