As millions of Americans hunker down to slow the spread of coronavirus, broadband access has become more important than ever. In hard-hit New York City, local volunteer efforts to shore up broadband affordability and availability gaps are seeing a huge surge in demand. Recent studies suggest some 44 million Americans lack access to any kind of broadband whatsoever, double previous FCC estimates. Millions more Americans can’t afford service courtesy of feckless regulators and limited competition, helping make American broadband some of the most expensive in the developed world. It’s not just a rural problem.
29 percent of New York City households lack a broadband connection. 46 percent of families living below the poverty line lack internet access, usually due to high costs. It’s a byproduct of the monopoly domination of just two providers—Verizon and Spectrum—who’ve failed repeatedly to live up to their broadband deployment promises to both the city and state.
Locals have taken matters into their own hands. A community-run operation named NYC Mesh had been on a mission to fix the problem since 2013. The project is a non profit wireless mesh network fueled by a gigabit fiber-fed antenna which in turn connects to member “nodes” installed on rooftops and near windows across more than 300 buildings around the city. Last year the project expanded into Brooklyn. NYC Mesh is built on the backs of volunteers and funded by optional monthly member donations of $20 or $50 for residential users, or $100 for businesses. Users also pay $110.00 for a WiFi router and rooftop antenna, and a $50 installation fee.
“Daily requests to join NYC Mesh have more than doubled over the past two weeks and they continue to climb,” NYC Mesh spokesperson Scott Rasmusen told Motherboard. He noted that while public safety has prohibited any new installs for the time being, volunteers are working overtime to keep existing operations online for New Yorkers who need it. He pointed to a live availability map that not only shows existing nodes, but pending install requests that were already spiking sharply before the pandemic hit. “Unfortunately, we're pretty much unable to field volunteers for new installs at this point and are only responding to requests with an urgent need for internet,” he said. “Our priority is network maintenance.”
While many ISPs will likely struggle under the load of unprecedented usage, Rasmusen said the city’s DIY effort was holding up well under the strain so far.
“Because of the network topology and structure, most issues can be resolved remotely and in the instance that there is an issue, we often have significant redundancy,” he said. “In the event that one connection point goes down, in many instances we can remotely redirect traffic. Our ability to do so obviously increases with node density. On some blocks at this point we have 4-5 interconnected nodes.” Rasmusen said NYC Mesh has been growing at a “break-neck pace,” especially for an all volunteer organization. He added that while COVID-19 will likely cause delays, the organization has several projects underway to help connect low-income developments.
“One positive outcome of the current crisis has been an intense interest in connecting the unconnected,” Rasmusen said. “Our organization has received increased attention in the past two weeks and I hope it assists our efforts in communicating the importance of our work to lawmakers and city officials.” Two months ago New York City unveiled plans for a massive new open access broadband network of its own, though those plans could be imperiled by the economic devastation expected to accompany the pandemic. Driven by immense frustration with the status quo, some 750 American communities have explored building their own broadband networks.
As frightened Americans run face-first into the problems with America’s monopolized telecom sector, it’s likely to highlight the benefits of community owned and operated broadband networks—as well as the 19 state laws big telecom has lobbied for that hamstring such efforts. Rasmusen said he’s hopeful the pandemic forges a broader conversation on the perils of U.S. broadband being a monopolized commodity, instead of an essential utility with its roots in local communities. “To my knowledge, we've never encountered a ‘disaster’ of this nature and it will undoubtedly impact how we talk about connectivity and our network in the future,” Rasmusen said. “This will be a new case to discuss and only demonstrates yet another reason why we should be investing in universal internet access now.”