04 May 2018

More of This

A group of "Techno Anarchists" in New York City have set up a mesh network to allow for broadly available low cost broadband:
It's a promise that seems almost too good to be true: super-fast internet that's cheap, and free of the contracts and hassles that come with major service providers.

That's not a pipe dream for Brian Hall, it's his goal.

The lead volunteer behind the community group NYC Mesh aims to bring affordable internet with lightning-quick downloads to everyone in New York, one building at a time.

"Our typical speeds are 80 to 110 megabits a second," Hall says, pointing out that streaming something like Netflix only requires about 5 Mbps.

CBC News joined him one afternoon on a roof in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Greenpoint. Hall was installing the latest addition to the mesh network that will deliver his vision.

The worksite is one of the group's latest customers, a converted warehouse that houses a video production company. The regular commercial internet providers were going to charge tens of thousands of dollars to get them online.

NYC Mesh took on the job for a small installation fee of a few hundred dollars and a monthly donation.

Mesh networks explained

So what is a mesh network?

Picture a spiderweb of wireless connections. The main signal originates from what's called the Supernode. It's a direct plugin to the internet, via an internet exchange point — the same place Internet Service Providers get their connection.

The signal from the supernode, sent out wirelessly via an antenna, covers an area of several kilometres.

From there, a mesh of smaller antennas spread out on rooftops or balconies receive that signal. They're connected to Wi-Fi access points that allow people to use the internet.

Each supernode can connect thousands of users.

And the access points talk to the others around them, so if one goes down for some reason the rest still work.

"Mesh networks are an alternative to standard ISP hookups. You're not provided with an internet connection through their cable, but through — in our case —Wi-Fi networks," says Jason Howard, a programmer and actor who's helping with the latest installation.

NYC Mesh bought an industrial-strength connection to the internet right at an Internet Exchange Point (IXP), in this case a futuristic-looking tower in downtown Manhattan. It's the same place that internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Spectrum connect to the internet, accessing massive amounts of wired bandwidth.

NYC Mesh then installed an antenna on the roof of the IXP. That became the supernode, the heart of its mesh network.

From there it beams out and receives Wi-Fi signals, connecting to receivers on rooftops spread through the East Village and Chinatown, and across the river into parts of Brooklyn.
I am generally dubious of techno-libertarian solutions to problems, I tend to favor regulation and public ownership, but this seems to be doing pretty well, though one does have to wonder about how well it might scale as its popularity increases.  (New York City is a perfect laboratory for investigating these issues)

I would think that the use of directional antennas would allow broader usage, if just by providing geographical separation between the data streams when frequency separation is no longer available.

In any case, anything that discommodes the incumbent telco and cable providers is to my mine an independent good.


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