Hooking up Downtown with free, resilient Wi-Fi

NYC Mesh This map shows the free Wi-Fi coverage are of the "supernode" that NYC Mesh wants to install on the rooftop of a data center on Pearl St., in the Financial District.

NYC Mesh
This map shows the free Wi-Fi coverage area of the “supernode” that NYC Mesh wants to install on the rooftop of a data center on Pearl St., in the Financial District.

BY YANNIC RACK |

A group of techies wants to put traditional Internet service providers out of business, one router at a time.

Local tech startup NYC Mesh is trying to create a community-owned, resilient network to provide free Wi-Fi across the city — and it plan to put a big tent pole up in Lower Manhattan.

“The idea is that of infrastructure as a commons,” said Brian Hall, a tech consultant and one of the project’s developers. “The Internet should just be owned by the people and everyone should have access to it.”

The way to reach that ideal, according to Hall, is a so-called mesh network — which doesn’t rely on a central server like traditional Internet service providers, but instead creates its own, self-supporting grid from an interconnected network of signal routers.

Over the past year, the group has started installing its routers — or “nodes” — with members all around the city.

“Everyone owns their own router,” Hall explained. “You go to our website and there’s a join form there. You fill that out and that will place your address on our map. Then we look for active nodes that are close to you and we try and line up two nodes, so they can connect together.”

The network then supports itself, passing data between the connected nodes, with members sharing free Internet access.

Around 40 nodes are active so far, and half of them are located in Manhattan, according to Hall.

Linda Justice, who uses the Internet mainly to work from home as a transcriptionist, got a mesh node installed about a month ago in her East Village apartment. Justice said had trouble with Verizon, her previous provider, for two years before stumbling across NYC Mesh.

“They got me set up and it’s just been perfect,” she said.

Justice said she had her doubts in the beginning but would now recommend the network to anyone looking for a cheap alternative to traditional providers.

“I was hesitant, because I thought, ‘OK, what’s the scam here?’” she said. “But it’s been great so far. Once the expense of the router is paid for, you don’t have another bill unless you want to make a donation.”

That’s actually becoming a problem for NYC Mesh, admits Hall — since they only charge for the router installation (ranging from $20-90) and users don’t pay for service, the company is still figuring out a way to increase its revenue. One idea is to provide subscription-based back-up Internet service for businesses, since the mesh network will still work even when other providers suffer outages.

“Our network can run independently from the Internet, and the mesh software can automatically re-route around any outage,” Hall said, making the network particularly useful during emergencies.

During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a mesh network run by the Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn not only restored connectivity to the neighborhood but also helped connect affected residents to resources via its intranet.

To help dramatically expand the network’s reach — and thus make the back-up service more marketable — Hall hopes to install a high-capacity wireless router on the rooftop of a data center on Pearl St., in the Financial District.

“With this ‘supernode,’ we will have an antenna that can reach Lower Manhattan and a large part of Brooklyn,” he explained, adding that the group hopes to get it up and running by April.

NYC Mesh isn’t the only free Wi-Fi on offer in Lower Manhattan. Downtowners can already use an ever-expanding network of free Wi-Fi provided by the Downtown Alliance, although that is only available on street level. And last week saw the rollout of LinkNYC, an initiative that will eventually replace every pay phone in the city with a Wi-Fi hotspot over the next four years, providing free, high-speed Internet to everyone within a few hundred feet.

But Hall hopes the promise of outage-proof Internet — and the boot-strapping appeal of a peer-to-peer network that cuts the cable giants out of the picture — will help NYC Mesh to win new converts, which will continue to improve the network’s reach and stability over time.

You can sign up at https://nycmesh.net/ to get your own NYC Mesh node.

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