When tropical storms hit New York City, internet connectivity is often the first thing to go down. The next time it happens in the low-lying coastal community of Red Hook, Brooklyn, it will be a group of teenagers running something called a Wi-Fi Mesh Network that will come to the rescue—providing a model for a low-cost, community-built solution to the so-called Last Mile gaps that the massive telcos can’t (or won’t) bridge.
A year ago, a community organization called Red Hook Initiative (RHI) had just started a pilot program for a Red Hook Wi-Fi mesh. A "mesh network" is a system of inexpensive router nodes that beam Wi-Fi around above the streets for everyone to use, and even if the internet connection goes down, the mesh allows communication within its bounds. So while you can’t watch Netflix over a closed mesh network, you can still communicate with people in your vicinity—which is obviously crucial in emergency scenarios.
In the hurricane’s aftermath, RHI handed the reins of the Red Hook Wi-Fi mesh project to a new group calling themselves The Digital Stewards, comprised of eight 19- to 25-year-olds. Do we really want kids running our backup systems?
As it turns out, RHI has lots of experience getting middle school and high school kids in its youth programs to stay on for leadership positions, but the Digital Stewards is a one-of-a-kind job training experience. Over its year-long course, not only will the youth have built up technical skill installing and maintaining their Wi-Fi network—they’ll have built lasting infrastructure in their own community, where their own neighbors are relying on their technical expertise.
But getting this mesh network started relied on an entirely different network—specifically, RHI Director of Media Programs Anthony Schloss’ network of tech professionals. His contact with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) led to a partnership to adopt its open-source Digital Stewards curriculum, already piloted in a team in Detroit, for Red Hook’s youth. In exchange for code line-level tech support, financial assistance, and personnel visits to share expertise, the Washington, D.C.-based OTI uses the Digital Stewards as a guinea pig for their vision of wireless community connection: Commotion Wireless.
Citing the state-led disabling of local Internet during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian protests, OTI presents Commotion’s open source wireless receivers/transmitters as a lynchpin of both everyday local interaction and as a civic network secure from government interference. While protecting against state censorship/intrusion isn’t anywhere on Schloss’ priority list, privacy concerns have driven recent interest in Wi-Fi mesh since the Snowden NSA leaks. Regardless of motivation, the low expense of Wi-Fi mesh allows the scrappy network concept to be set up anywhere, as Schloss learned when his nascent network got FEMA’s attention in the days after Sandy and they hooked it up to their satellite connection, spreading wireless internet around Coffey Park where the Red Cross had set up shop.
Currently, Schloss and the RHI pay local ISP Brooklyn Fiber to stream internet through a five-router distribution layer of Ubiquiti Nanostation routers (which have about a mile line-of-site range) mounted on tall buildings, which in turn relay the signal through omnidirectional Ubiquiti Pico omnidirectional Wi-Fi routers—which are tough, waterproof, cheap ($80), and low-power (about $20/year each). Those area routers project Wi-Fi as normal at speeds of 6-10 MBps—quite enough for mobile Red Hook users, but not enough for sustained desktop data download (which nobody has abused to torrent massive files yet, says Schloss). The Digital Steward youth install the Pico routers themselves in less than an hour, either attaching router nodes to windows via adhesive or installing roof mounts, which often requires drilling.
The drilling makes some businesses wary of jumping on board, but it’s not the only impediment. Some local shops have their own Wi-Fi and haven’t been convinced of the greater good in joining the mesh, while business owners who don’t live in Red Hook don’t have enough personal stake to invest in it. As it stands, the Red Hook Wi-Fi mesh broadcasts Wi-Fi in Red Hook Park, in front of Ikea on Halleck St., and on 2 of the 3 main business thoroughfares, Van Brunt St. and Lorraine St. By year’s end, the Stewards hope to expand their coverage of these thoroughfares to cover "80% of public space in Red Hook," with the last main thoroughfare of Clinton St. in its sights for next year.
Their next huge goal—the daunting task that inspired the project in the first place—is the huge complex of 30-plus Red Hook Houses public housing north of Lorraine St. Their interim plan is to simply surround the complex, but the Wi-Fi won’t penetrate into the dozen or so core buildings.To properly install Pico routers throughout, Schloss and the RHI will need to navigate the New York Housing Authority’s bureaucracy in order to prove that the network is functional and would benefit the over 10,000 Red Hook residents living inside the complex.
The team will also work toward bringing in more middle-class Red Hook residents to become "gateway" parts of the Wi-Fi mesh—donating however much bandwidth they feel comfortable with in order to reduce how many "jumps" mobile users have to make from their closest router to an internet-connected router. Until then, it’s up to the Digital Stewards to launch their first great community initiative: getting the residents of Red Hook to start using the free public Wi-Fi that many of them know nothing about.
The opportunity to learn and contribute was too enticing to pass up for 21-year-old Katherine Ortiz—probably because she’d spent her teenage years embroiled in HTML back-end making MySpace themes. Combined with her Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator experience from fashion design college coursework, Ortiz had a leg up on her peers and helped them along during the Digital Stewards’ programming boot camp over summer.
The experience and tech interest earned her an internship installing wired fiber internet for Brooklyn Fiber alongside her classmate Tiwan Burrus—which, over the last few months, have inspired the pair to start their own internet installation company if they don’t continue with the Digital Stewards after their year-long commitment ends in January. Ortiz and Burrus wrote a proposal for funding from RHI, and if granted, it’ll accomplish the full circle of community re-investment that Schloss and the RHI dreamed of when they started Digital Stewards: Red Hook youth applying their tech skills to the community’s need, then applying their skills professionally within Red Hook. While Schloss is torn over whether to encourage the Digital Stewards to either stay in Red Hook or see the world, his support and connections have given the Stewards a look into the tech world they have the skills to inhabit—and the tech world has given its love right back.
Back in June, the Stewards had gone to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and met the men and women of OTI’s first Digital Stewards program. At the beginning of October, Schloss took Ortiz, Burrus, and third Steward Nigel Taylor-Johnson to the International Summit for Community Wireless Networks in Berlin. The response was tremendous: though other groups were creating similar meshes, nobody was training and employing youth at the Digital Stewards’ level.
To Schloss’ pleasure, the Stewards took control of their presentation: "They answered questions and didn't refer to me or their notes but spouted off the top of their heads," he said.