A community-run operation named NYC Mesh is on a mission: to deliver better, cheaper broadband service to New York City. The locally-run nonprofit project says it’s engaging in a dramatic expansion that should soon deliver a new, more open broadband alternative to big ISPs to a wider swath of the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
With the installation of a new "supernode," NYC Mesh has greatly expanded its coverage area to much of western Brooklyn, as well as much of lower Manhattan. Like most cities, New York City suffers from a meaningful lack of broadband competition. The city’s biggest ISP, Verizon, is currently being sued by the city for failing to fully deploy fiber as part of a 2014 agreement with the city. Verizon’s biggest competitor, Spectrum, is routinely ranked as one of the worst companies in America in customer satisfaction. Born out of frustration in 2013, NYC Mesh isn’t a traditional business. It’s built on the backs of volunteers and donors who dedicate their time, money, bandwidth, hardware, and resources to building an alternative to the abysmal logjam that is shoddy US broadband. NYC Mesh member and spokesperson Scott Rasmusen told Motherboard the project hopes to address the fact that between a quarter and a third of NYC residents still don’t have a broadband connection. And those that do have access are often stuck with pricey monopolies that don’t respect consumer privacy. “NYC Mesh believes in an open, neutral, and resilient internet that is accessible to all people—no matter what their home may look like or how much they can afford,” Rasumussen said. “We believe that the best way of achieving this is to build a network that is entirely community owned and managed.” Initially, the mesh network was powered by a single “Supernode” antenna and hardware array located at 375 Pearl Street in Manhattan. This gigabit fiber-fed antenna connects 300 buildings, where members have mounted routers on a rooftop or near a window. These local “nodes” in turn connect to an internet exchange point—without the need for a traditional ISP.
Unlike a traditional ISP, users don’t pay a fixed monthly rate, and there are no costly monthly usage caps or overage fees. A NYC Mesh rate sheet notes the project is funded by optional monthly member donations of $20 or $50 for a residential users, or $100 for a business. Users also pay $110.00 for a WiFi router and rooftop antenna, and a $50 installation fee. Rasmussen told Motherboard project leaders do their best “to ensure that price is never prohibitory.” At the same time, service speed takes a “best effort” approach. Available bandwidth can vary greatly depending on the overall distance from the central node antenna, and may be impacted be regional weather conditions. Customer support, like the network itself, is also a community affair, relying on the time and expertise of local volunteers.
“Our members are contributors to our community, not customers, consumers or users,” notes the project FAQ. “Being a member of our network has many benefits, including replacing your current ISP with fast, neutral, affordable, and unmonitored Internet access.” The organization just announced it will be dramatically expanding the network starting this month, with the installation of a new Supernode 3 antenna and hardware array at Industry City in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. According to NYC Mesh, this new supernode will have 50 times the capacity of the original node, allowing the project to extend availability to Sunset Park, South Slope, Park Slope, Gowanus, Red Hook, and beyond.
NYC Mesh is just one of 750 US communities that have built some flavor of community broadband as an alternative to substandard service from private ISPs. Data shows that community operations routinely offer faster, cheaper, and better service than traditional ISPs. One community run ISP in Chattanooga was rated the best ISP in America last year.
In contrast to most private ISPs, NYC Mesh says it won’t collect or monetize your private usage data. Aside from occasionally looking at traffic headers for network troubleshooting purposes, the project says it never logs or stores customer usage activity.
Unlike many ISPs, NYC Mesh has promised that its network will always adhere to the idea of network neutrality; as in the network will never prioritize one website or service over another just to make a quick buck.
NYC Mesh is a non-profit project of the New York chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-NY), an organization tasked with building a better, more secure internet. And it’s part of a steadily growing trend of locals taking the problem of terrible US broadband (thanks to the apathetic government officials who enable it) into their own hands. “NYC Mesh is more than happy to support anyone interested in building a community network,” Rasmusen said. “Our website includes information about every facet of our network and how-to guides for building your own. We also offer technical training to give all people the opportunity to become community network leaders and experts.”