Guerilla Wi-Fi

Quick definition: A mesh network relies on all nodes to propagate signals, each device can talk to every other device, and all nodes cooperatively distribute data.

They’ve been around since the early 2000s but have never gained much prominence since most of them are operated by volunteers and often face policy and lobbying headwinds. However, that kind of community infrastructure remains important as decent Internet becomes an ever more essential part of every day life but is not evenly distributed across neighbourhoods. ‘Welcome to the Mesh, Brother’ is a good article on the topic that shows how they work, but perhaps more importantly how oligopolies—in this case in New York but it’s a common issue elsewhere—still have to be forced into providing quality service in less affluent parts of the city and constantly delay.

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.

This kind of initiative usually starts with some motivated and tech savvy volunteers, but cities themselves can benefit and find useful partners in making Internet access more equally distributed, like through this initiative in NYC.

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.

Most of these mesh networks usually find themselves at a crossroad and not all make it to the other side; as the network grows, so do installation and maintenance needs as well as turnover of volunteers. Since they usually operate from strong community values and keep access free or cheap, shifting from an all-volunteer model to one with some paid workers and perhaps higher fees can be a problem, one not easily resolved, which goes a long way in explaining why there aren’t more and larger networks.

Still, cities re-inventing themselves and connecting with citizens might do well to foster stronger mesh networks which can bridge some inequalities, and in some ways make communities more resilient, by the connections these projects bring, but also because a healthy mesh can rout around damage (during weather events for example) more reliably than the brittle networks of some incumbents.

Photo: 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