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Community Networks 25 September 2018

New York City Groups Take Broadband into Their Own Hands

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossTechnology Reporter

A handful of groups in New York City are bypassing large ISPs and building their own community networks, as a way to provide cheaper, and in many cases faster and more reliable service.

NYC Mesh and Silicon Harlem, both about five years old, are among a handful of community-based network providers that are working to provide Internet connection alternatives in New York City. The projects seek to fill in coverage gaps – in terms of both geography and reliability – plaguing incumbent broadband providers.

The nonprofit NYC Mesh, with about a dozen core volunteers and no full-time employees, provides and combination of fiber and wireless Internet access in downtown Manhattan, a large chunk of Brooklyn, and corners of the Bronx and Queens, says organizer Brian Hall.

A monthly payment for service – with average speeds of 80 Mpbs and up to 200 Mbps for some users – is voluntary. Many residential members choose to pay $20 a month, while many businesses pay between $50 and $100, but it’s not required.

Volunteers were inspired to launch the service for a number of reasons, Hall says. They wanted to close the digital divide by providing inexpensive broadband service, and they wanted to improve reliability by offering services over distributed nodes, with no single point of failure. NYC Mesh’s first supernode – a hub of multiple radios, routers, and antennas – boasts an uptime of 99.8 percent, exceeding the incumbent provider’s approximate 99 percent, the group says.

Many of the volunteers were disgruntled with slower-than-advertised speeds from incumbent providers, with some customers getting less than 10 Mbps. Other supporters were concerned about subscriber data collection by incumbent carriers. Volunteers also found that even in the largest city in the United States, there were pockets of poor and even nonexistent coverage, Hall says.

NYC Mesh connected a building in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn – just across the East River from Lower Manhattan – that had no Internet access, Hall says. “There are still parts of the city that have just no options,” he adds. Incumbent carriers seem to have “never figured out” how to provide access in pockets of the city.

NYC Mesh’s goal is to eventually cover all of New York City and potentially some neighboring urban areas. The team also wants to help other cities set up similar mesh networks.

It’s not an easy road, however. The project had a slow start, with volunteers wrestling with the best technologies to accomplish their goals and needing to get permission to install antennas on rooftops of buildings, Hall says.

“It is quite a struggle,” he says. “The first few years we didn’t get very far.”

The key to making a project like this work is flexibility, Hall adds. “Building a network, you’ve got to solve problems, like, ‘How do you get the high bandwidth from one site to another? What’s the cheapest, best way to do that?’”

NYC Mesh, which has pledged to its members to provide an open, neutral network, got an unexpected boost from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which voted in December 2017 to repeal its 2015 net neutrality rules. Throughout the life of NYC Mesh, the average number of member sign-ups requests per month was about 20, and in December, join requests spiked to 438.

The group has more than 2,000 join requests in the pipeline, with 211 active member nodes connected to the network.

The FCC net neutrality repeal “really took us to the next level,” Hall says. “We’re expanding really quickly now.”

NYC Mesh works closely with Silicon Harlem, another organization focused on expanding Internet access in New York City. Silicon Harlem is focused on transforming the traditionally African-American neighborhood in Upper Manhattan into a tech and innovation hub. The group not only provides Internet access, but also Internet and technology training programs. It also hosts conferences on tech opportunities, and is planning a smart city pilot program for the area.

The group’s mantra is “digital inclusion,” says Bruce Lincoln, a cofounder. The group wants to ensure that “underserved communities aren’t left behind.”

Silicon Harlem’s first community WiFi network, scheduled to launch in 2019, will cover an approximately 30-square-block area surrounding the 116th Street corridor in East Harlem, where telecom services were knocked out during Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. The goal of the project, funded by the City of New York, is to provide reliable emergency services to small businesses and other residents during hurricanes and other disasters, Lincoln says.

Young residents, ages 17 and up, are being trained to be the network technicians, Lincoln adds. WiFi service will be free to residents.

With assistance from the National Science Foundation and several universities, Silicon Harlem is planning a second community network for Central Harlem. The plan is to harness the upcoming 5G mobile services while providing low-cost edge client devices to homes, allowing families to connect to the Internet with few up-front costs, Lincoln says.

Innovative ways to connect to the Internet will be valuable to communities that are currently underserved, Lincoln says. The group’s various projects can “show what it looks like to make sure a diverse community is connected the Internet,” he says.

Learn more about community networks and let’s work together to #SwitchItOn.

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