In a typical week, NYC Mesh–a community-owned internet network in New York City–might get five requests from people who want to join. In the wake of the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality rules, it started getting dozens of requests a day.
Without net neutrality protections, big telecom companies can choose to slow down or block certain sites. If you want to watch Netflix, for example, Comcast could decide to charge you more to access it. A community-run “mesh” network, by contrast, takes back control from corporations: Everyone on the network can agree to keep all content open. When a system is fully running, the people who use it can cancel their contract with a traditional internet service provider and stop paying any monthly bills.
In Manhattan, NYC Mesh put a large antenna on top of a building connected directly to the internet through fiber optic cable. This “supernode,” supported by a network of point-to-point routers that volunteers install on rooftops and windows in the area, provides a fast connection for users in most of downtown. A second supernode is in place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, and two more are planned.
“I think with around 30 or 40 supernodes we could cover the whole city,” says Brian Hall, a volunteer working on the project. “It’s going to take us a while, but that’s our plan.”
It’s something of a return to how the internet originally worked. “One thing that inspires me is that the original idea of the internet was a network of networks,” Hall says. “Different organizations like universities or the Defense Department would form their own network, and then they would join them together, and that is how the internet formed. We’re just getting back to the idea. We formed a network, and we join our network with other networks, and get rid of the ISP layer that we don’t really need.”
Building this type of network can be challenging, and the existing efforts in the U.S. are small. Some projects, like a network attempted in Hoboken, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, never took off. In many cases, it’s difficult to get access to the best locations for supernodes. “The people who own masts up on hills or who own tall buildings have become accustomed to the fact that they can charge large monthly rental costs to big ISPs,” says Marc Juul, one of the co-creators of the People’s Open Network, a Bay Area-based mesh network in the early stages in Oakland.
Unlike big telecom companies, which rely solely on a small number of these expensive relay points, a mesh network can route internet from house to house. Having a dense network of participants can keep the bandwidth high and makes the network resilient. But building a comprehensive network is also difficult. “One of the problems in starting a mesh network is bootstrapping–how you get a mesh network from nothing to actually existing,” says Juul. “Every time someone comes and wants to be on the mesh, in the beginning, they’re very likely going to be very far away from anyone else on the mesh.”
To start, those who want to be a part of People’s Open Network can buy a cheap, off-the-shelf dual-band router that the group has programmed with open-source mesh software. Once plugged in, it works as both a wireless hotspot and a router. If it’s in range of another router on the mesh network, it automatically connects. But until the network is big enough, people are using the routers differently–continuing to pay a traditional internet service provider, and sharing a little of their bandwidth with others in range. If a volunteer wants to take the next step, they can install an “extender” node on their roof or in a window, pointed at another node in the network.
All of this requires volunteers to install the equipment, which is another challenge. People’s Open Network wants to avoid charging for installation like a traditional ISP, because it doesn’t want to establish a traditional customer service relationship where customers are passive and uninformed. “What we’re trying to do is something horizontal, where everyone is part of the internet,” says Juul. “Everyone is a node on the internet that makes it possible for the internet to exist. We’re really trying not to get into that state of mind where people are thinking that the internet is delivered to them by someone else.”
It’s becoming easier as the hardware improves; some new equipment that will be on the market in early 2018 is smaller and simple to mount with a zip tie. People’s Open Network also runs workshops that teach anyone how to install a node. In 2018, the group will likely run a Kickstarter campaign to launch nodes in a large number of homes at once.
It’s feasible, they say, for community-run networks like these to eventually replace traditional ISPs. If a community can get cheap internet from a Tier 1 provider–in the Bay Area, the group is working with a company called Hurricane Electric that has a global network and low rates–and because the hardware is getting cheaper, then “you can serve a lot of people for almost no money . . . the bandwidth cost goes toward zero if enough people share it,” he says.
In some locations, including large parts of Spain, this type of network is already operational. The Spanish Guifi network has more than 30,000 active nodes. If it can succeed in the U.S., mesh networks could help avoid the problems that come with traditional internet service providers; participants can sign agreements to uphold net neutrality. People’s Open Network others are working on a network commons license that the group plans to adopt next year.
The mesh could also eventually replace cell service providers, using hardware built to a new LTE standard that allows anyone to create their own cellular base stations (without the expensive licenses that were previously necessary). “That would really expand what the mesh could be used for,” Juul says.