In a small town near the Vermont-Canadian border, the latest skirmish in the fight for affordable internet access is being waged by a 65-year-old woman pushing a laptop around in a baby stroller.
Diane Peel, a retired nurse, is the lead organizer of a wireless mesh network in Newport, Vermont. Peel and her cohorts completed a two-year pilot project in February with less than a dozen housholds. This summer, they plan to offer high-speed internet access at a fraction of what the commercial ISPs charge.
"In this day and age if you can't stay connected, then you're just going to lose out," said Peel. "There are kids growing up in families where the only access to the internet they ever see is their parents scrolling up and down Facebook on a smartphone. That is not preparing them to be adults in the society we have."
For many Americans, a broadband connection at home is an essential necessity of 21st century life. And yet there are some who say they can't afford a smartphone data plan and home internet, leading many to rely on a few gigs per month from their wireless carrier.
The Newport Wireless Mesh aims to remedy that with cheap Wi-Fi routers and an economic model borrowed from public broadcasting. When the group formally launches, it is expected to serve about 80 families via just six nodes or routers. The nodes are usually about 200 feet apart and each node is capable of serving several households. They communicate with one another, and some connect to the internet.
To test reception, Peel and her fellow activists outfitted a baby stroller with a laptop computer, a battery used for motorcycles and jet skis, a power inverter, and a router with an antenna attached to it. They pushed the "mesh buggy" around the roughly nine-square-block area in downtown Newport served by the mesh network, where nearly half the kids live below the poverty line.
"This wireless mesh project has allowed me to have internet services that I would not otherwise been able to have and I've been in my residence now for five years," said Michelle Rossi, a single mother of two. "We're still feeling out how the weather affects it and the number of devices in the house that [we can run off] it. My son's got a PlayStation and my daughter plays on the tablet, but we haven't had too many hiccups."
The pilot project was done "under the radar," without the cooperation of local landlords, so some routers were not placed in optimal locations. They haven't yet secured permission from landlords, but Peele did not anticipate much pushback.
This summer, each participating household will get a laminated sheet with trouble-shooting information. On the bottom of the sheet "will probably be my phone number," Peel says with a laugh. "I will personally come over to your house and check out the problem."
Newport residents have two options for commercial internet service: Comcast and Fairpoint Communications.
Comcast has provided cheap internet access to families in federally subsidized housing or with children in a school lunch program since 2011 via its Internet Essentials program. About 1,300 Vermont households have been accepted into Internet Essentials since its inception and qualifying households get 10 Mbps service for just $10 a month, though that's less than half the speed of the company's 25 Mbps entry-level internet service.
Peel plans to purchase bandwidth—about 100 Mbps—via fiber optic cable from Fairpoint, which is aware of Peel's plan. She doesn't yet know how fast the service will be; beta testers watched YouTube and Netflix without incident, but online gaming is probably a no-go.
Peel expects low-income households will pay $15 a month for service, but some will pay nothing and some will pay more. "We do have some people in this neighborhood who are actually somewhat better off and are very civic-minded," Peel said. "I'm hoping that they're going to be willing to kick in a little bit more."
The Newport Mesh has almost no overhead. There are no salaries and no rent to pay for its headquarters, a desk at a nonprofit art gallery and community center. When Peel showed a reporter around on a recent visit, she pointed to a router placed in a tupperware container affixed to the gallery's sign.
From Pittsburgh to Newport
Peel also displayed what looks like a white square hockey puck that fit in the palm of her hand. It was a mesh router purchased from a Pittsburgh company called Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, which grew out of that city's wireless mesh network, PittMesh. The first router in Pittsburgh went up in April 2013, and PittMesh now has 60 nodes around the city.
Meta Mesh's mission is to develop solutions to bridge the digital divide, according to Adam Longwill, a PittMesh founder who now serves as director of Meta Mesh.
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Meta Mesh has been buying tiny travel routers from a Chinese manufacturer for between $25 and $40, putting bigger antennas on them, and then placing the units in water-tight containers so they can be used outdoors.
"The equipment we install is really inexpensive by design so we can easily swap it out if it fails," Longwill explained. "And we keep it small so that it's pretty discreet."
Longwill says PittMesh doesn't need a server to function. It uses five ultra cheap Raspberry Pi computers for the mesh's web page and a community hub providing hyper local news and announcements. About half of its routers, which attach to a wall with just two screws, are connected to the internet. Users typically get speeds of 5-20 Mbps, but it's not unheard of to reach a speed of 50 Mbps on PittMesh.
Meta Mesh sells its modified routers for $75 a piece and charges $100 for installation in the Pittsburgh area. Longwill says he's gotten community development corporations and other local nonprofits to fund the purchase and installation of new nodes.
"We basically knock on a business's doors and say, 'Hey, do you wanna put this router up? It's all paid for. And we'd really like you to donate bandwidth and we'll just connect it to your internet. If that's OK, it'll be no cost to you and you'll look better in the community.'"
Mesh networks are currently operating in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, KS, and Portland, Oregon. In the Bay Area, there are currently 50 nodes functioning in the Oakland-based People's Open Network, but that number is expected to grow to 200 by the end of the summer. Like PittMesh, the first node of the People's Open Network went up at a local hackerspace.
Mark Juul, a software developer active in the network, says it extends as far south as Santa Cruz and north to Marin County, a distance of 75 miles. That's made possible, in part, by Wi-Fi routers with directional antennas that are able to send bandwidth over long distances.
"If you have line of site and you have a good rooftop that can see other nodes far away, I'd day that you can do high speeds within a few miles," said Juul.
The Bay Area mesh has been advised by Mitar Milutinovic, a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and co-founder of wlan-slovenija, a mesh network that spread to three cities in Slovenia and into Croatia. The wireless mesh movement is thriving in Europe. The largest network in the world—Guifi—is in Spain; it has more than 32,000 nodes and spans much of Catalonia.
Juul sees internet access as a basic human right and believes there's no reason why people shouldn't be on the internet, even if they can't pay for it.
"If we get enough critical mass, we can simply buy bulk bandwidth at very low rates and fund it via voluntary payments," said Juul. "The people who can't pay won't pay and the people who can pay will pay. And hopefully that works out for everyone."
Juul and other mesh activists say it's not good that internet infrastructure be owned by a handful of major corporations. That, they argue, keeps prices artificially high, so mesh networks are an affordable workaround.
"Someone might own the fibers or the cables that go to your house. Someone might own the telephone poles or the roads, so you can't dig down and lay your own cables," Juul points out. "But you can set out a little dish on your roof and beam a signal to someone else. And suddenly you can build your own infrastructure. That's the power of these Wi-Fi mesh networks."
Juul stresses that the People's Open Network doesn't aspire to be the only internet service provide for its users.
"We expect that we'll be able to provide quite a lot of bandwidth to quite a lot of people. Our bandwidth is going to be fairly reliable and it's going to be free because it's funded by donations. But we're not going to call ourselves an ISP. We're not going to tell people that 'This is now your free ISP alternative to your existing ISP'."
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