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‘Welcome to the Mesh, brother.’ Guerrilla Wi-Fi comes to New York

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July 25, 2021 at 5:45 pm Updated July 26, 2021 at 7:44 am  

Daniel Heredia, left, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, installs a router on the apartment building where Andre Cambridge, right, lives in New York, April 17, 2021. 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. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)
A worker watches as Daniel Heredia, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, performs network maintenance on an apartment building in New York, April 17, 2021. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)
Daniel Heredia, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, on an apartment building in New York, April 17, 2021. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)
Daniel Heredia, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, installs a router on an apartment building in New York, April 17, 2021. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)
Daniel Heredia, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, installs a router on an apartment building in New York, April 17, 2021. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)
Daniel Heredia, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, installs a router on an apartment building in New York, April 17, 2021. (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times)

 1 of 6 | Daniel Heredia, left, a volunteer with NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi initiative, installs a router on the… (Jose A. Alvarado Jr. / The New York Times) More Skip AdBy Bliss BroyardThe New York Times

NEW YORK — 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.

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,” Heredia said, “you should have told us.” He could have moved up the installation.

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. Cambridge’s family said they had become fed up with the take-it-or-leave-it pricing for spotty service in this part of Brooklyn.

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. 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 Heredia.ADVERTISINGSkip AdSkip AdSkip Ad

Cambridge ran a speed test. “We’re getting 80 megabits down and 50 megabits up!”

Heredia clasped palms and bumped shoulders with 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 of Manhattan, residents can choose among four carriers. In Brownsville, Cambridge could choose 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 DIY “internet in a box” efforts led by digital justice organization Community Tech NY and internet cooperative People’s Choice, started by former Spectrum strikers — to smaller for-profits like Starry, a Boston-based startup 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.ADVERTISINGSkip Adhttps://d2a59b7cddb9f46dc9bbdf21a66458b7.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

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 1 million New Yorkers who don’t have broadband — 46% 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, 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 Hall when he was starting NYC Mesh in 2014. Burned out from his job as a programmer, he wanted to do something community-based that could have an impact.

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,” 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, Brooklyn, that 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 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, 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 2-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 re-imagining 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 grassroots 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.