In a warehouse basement in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood late last year, a handful of self-taught network engineers gathered to casually discuss how they might make Time Warner Cable irrelevant in their lives.
Toppling—or at least subverting—a telecom monopoly is the dream of many an American, who are fed up with bait-and-switch advertising campaigns, arbitrary data caps, attacks on net neutrality, overzealous political lobbying, lackluster customer service, and passive-aggressive service cancellation experiences that are a common experience of simply being a broadband internet customer these days. The folks at NYC Mesh are actually doing something about it.
Motherboard made a podcast about NYC Mesh earlier this month. You can subscribe to Radio Motherboard on iTunes.
On any given weekend, Brian Hall and his fellow organizers can be found around the city, installing directional wifi routers on rooftops. Anyone in the city who lives near another person on the network is welcome to join, and NYC Mesh volunteers will help you install a rooftop router.
"Two weeks ago, Jonathan decided he wanted to put a router in his backyard," Hall told me, referring to one of his organizers. "We were initially going to put it on the top of a telegraph pole. But we couldn't figure out how to get up there, so he started climbing a tree, it was so far up. There's now a router at the top of a tree in Park Slope."
The DIY network relies on "mesh" routing. The concept is quite simple. Your home wifi router provides internet to anyone with a wifi-capable device in your home. But routers also have the ability to connect to and talk to each other. By "meshing" them, or connecting them together, you are creating a larger wifi zone. As long as one of the routers is connected to the internet in some way, it's possible for anyone within range of any of the routers to get onto the internet. You could, theoretically, connect many routers together to create a giant wifi hotspot that covers huge parts of New York City or any other geographical area.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. Every time a connection "hops," it slows down. If your router is connected to the internet but your neighbor's is not, your internet speed will be faster than his or hers. The more hops, the more latency. This means that, for a mesh connection to be a viable alternative to a standard one, many of the routers must be connected to the internet.
Currently, NYC Mesh has about 40 "nodes," or routers on the network (they are mostly smattered around Manhattan's East Village and Williamsburg in Brooklyn), with more than 100 people waiting for an install. The network is also capable of "meshing" through the internet, meaning that if two routers are independently connected to the internet, they can also talk to each other to be part of the same network, which is why there are various pockets of meshes in the NYC network. NYC Mesh explains its mission in this presentation.
What NYC Mesh has accomplished so far is interesting. It's a fun hobby project, a cool proof-of-concept, and an interesting experiment in what's possible with the cooperation of a handful of strangers. But all of the nodes are eventually routed through a Time Warner Cable internet connection, which doesn't do much good if you're trying to create what could eventually be an alternative to Time Warner. It has to become more serious.
And so Hall has arranged agreements with two massive internet exchanges in New York City that will allow him to install two "super nodes" that have ranges of several miles in March of this year. Super nodes are essentially high-powered wireless transmitters that are connected to an internet exchange, which can be thought of as the "backbone of the internet." In many cases, normal internet service providers buy or lease their bandwidth from these internet exchanges, which have names the layperson probably hasn't heard of.
The first super node will be at the Sabey Data Center, which is on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. The second will be at 325 Hudson, which bills itself as a "carrier-neutral interconnection facility" that "offers direct access to transatlantic cables, major metro and regional fiber providers, and peering exchanges."
"They would be connecting us directly into the backbone of the internet," Hall said. "We've met a lot of helpful people in high places willing to donate bandwidth and to give us cheap space on a couple internet exchange places in downtown Manhattan. It's quite exciting because we'll get cheap internet and can broadcast it to Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan."
The importance of these super nodes to the future of the network can't really be understated: They have a range of several miles and are connected directly into the backbone of the internet, which allows NYC Mesh to become its own internet service provider. Routers can also connect directly to the super node, meaning that people who want to join it will no longer need to live within a few hundred feet of the nearest node. Instead, everyone who lives in lower Manhattan or along the Brooklyn waterfront should be able to connect directly to the network.
Hall says that routers connected to the super node will be able to get download speeds of more than 100 mbps, which is faster than many Time Warner Cable connection options. A $95 router on your rooftop would be able to connect to the super node, and Hall says he's planning on charging people a modest maintenance fee ("we're thinking like $10 a month or something") to join. The super node will initially be funded by businesses in lower Manhattan who are hoping to create redundancies should their internet service go down during a storm, for instance.
There are still a lot of moving parts, and neither of the nodes has been installed yet, but experts tell me there's no reason why NYC Mesh can't succeed. Guifi.net is believed to be the largest mesh network in the world—it's an autonomous, free, community-owned network that has roughly 30,000 nodes located all over Spain. In Cuba, an illegal mesh network called SNet has flourished, allowing people there to play games and exchange files on a local network (Cuba's access to the "real" internet is severely limited by the government). Isaac Wilder and the Free Network Foundation, meanwhile, have open sourced tools to start small networks around the US.
Jinyang Li, a New York University professor who helped develop early mesh networking technology, told me there simply hasn't been much interest in mesh networking in the United States so far.
"Mesh networks have been the only choice for people in a lot of developing economies," Li said. "I think in the United States the infrastructure has been so good, so there hasn't been incentive to build these networks, but there's no reason it wouldn't work."
As people become more and more fed up with monopolistic ISPs, there's growing sentiment that there must be another way.
"Everyone seems to hate Time Warner, that's the thing that unifies the city," Hall said. "It's going to be a while before we replace Time Warner, but there's some hope of it happening."