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Growing the Internet 30 March 2020

In New York City, Building a Network While Social Distancing

NYC Mesh connects people to “critical Internet lifeline” during COVID-19 pandemic

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, cities are slowing to a halt and millions of people are self-isolating to help slow the spread of the virus.

The Internet has never been more important. It is critical for up-to-date health information and it’s a necessity for students to continue their education and for parents to continue working. It enables access to government programs like unemployment insurance and can help alleviate the effects of social isolation.

Yet, in New York City alone, 1.5 million people don’t have access from their homes or mobile devices, largely due to high costs of connectivity.

A group of volunteers is working around the clock to change that, one antenna at a time.

NYC Mesh, a community network supported by the Internet Society, kicked into high gear earlier this month in advance of the pandemic, getting as many people connected as possible while it was still safe to do so, prioritizing those with no other Internet access. The ramp up –going from a couple of installs a week to one or more a day – was “a mad rush of logistics,” says volunteer Jillian Murphy. But Internet access is incredibly important.

“The Internet is a critical lifeline,” says Murphy, who is also a member of the Internet Society’s New York Chapter. “Lifeline is almost an understatement.”

“[The Internet is] really the ability of an individual to have information about what’s happening around them and how to stay safe,” says Murphy.

NYC Mesh was founded in 2014, but things kicked up a few notches in 2016 when the group was awarded a grant from the Internet Society to connect their network to an Internet Exchange Point (IXP). An IXP connects local networks to the global Internet. This enabled the organization to significantly expand their capacity to serve New Yorkers. Their network has been growing ever since, currently connecting over 500 households.

How does it all work? It’s nonprofit and wholly operated by volunteers. Each NYC Mesh member installs a roof-mounted wireless antenna, or node, and connects to other antennas which forms a mesh network. The antennas used, which can be purchased by anyone, can send and receive signals miles away, and expand across entire neighborhoods. That network then sends traffic to an IXP where users have direct access to the global Internet without needing to go through a commercial service provider.

Those who join receive equipment, training, and support for a marginal cost to set up their node (with subsidies available to those who need it). There’s no monthly fee, though the organization asks members to donate if they can to cover costs to keep the network running. Many members become volunteers themselves, continuing connecting the city.

NYC Mesh is just one example of the kind of community-based network that the Internet Society supports around the world. The Internet Society, is a non-profit dedicated to extending the Internet to all people. One way we do this is through supporting the development of community networks. These are small networks built by communities – like NYC Mesh.  These networks are often in underserved rural, remote, and urban places, just like New York City.

Community networks are a vital, complimentary way to connect people at affordable prices.

In New York, NYC Mesh continues its work, though it’s getting harder to do so, right now. Installs have had to stop, but the group continues operating and maintaining the network, supporting its members and building the organization through virtual means, says Murphy.

“It’s neighbors helping neighbors.”

At the time of writing this the state of New York State was reporting 60,679 total cases of COVID-19, nearly 10 percent of global cases. It is the hardest hit in all the United States.

If you would like to lend NYC Mesh a hand during this crisis, please reach out.

Access to the Internet has never been more important. We will be featuring the work of communities around the world to keep the Internet open and globally connected. It has no borders.


Image from the October 18th NYC Mesh installation © Chris Gregory/Internet Society

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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