Do You Really Need an ISP?
Did you know that you can get fast Internet access without paying a faceless corporate internet service provider? There's a grassroots movement that's connecting people via community mesh networks, and it's exciting to see it grow. Here's the scoop on mesh networking...
Can We, The People, Take Back The Internet?
Zach Giles spends a lot of time on rooftops. He's one of many volunteers for NYC Mesh -- helping to spread the word that people don't have to rely on traditional ISPs to get online.
With the death of Net Neutrality rules, there has been a grassroots resurgence of interest in community networking. Internet users from all walks of life and all corners of the country are worried about the ever-tightening grasp that megacorporations like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have upon the backbone of modern society, the Internet. In pockets here and there, people are starting to take back what was theirs in the early 1990s.
Around the turn of the 1990 decade, thousands of small-time entrepreneurs and hobbyists made the leap from dial-up Bulletin Board System operators to Internet Service Providers, connecting their neighbors - who still dialed in using analog modems - to this world-spanning “network of networks.” They were people who cared about people, who went out of their way and stayed up all night to make sure their customers were well taken care of.
Those neighborhood ISPs are mostly gone now, replaced by remote, faceless corporations whose only concern is how much of our money they can convert into “shareholder value.” Never before have they had so many friends - or servants - in positions of power to grant their every wish. The public’s Internet has become a corporate cash cow. But some rebellious folks just aren’t having that!
Kaleigh Rogers, a writer for Motherboard, says "We are so used to the internet being this other thing, run by private businesses. But there's no reason why it has to be. You know, the core infrastructure that rigs up the whole planet with internet, anyone can connect to it."
NYC Mesh is an example of modern community networking. Run by volunteers who range from mechanical engineers to Wall Street bankers who moonlight as actors, this energetic group is providing Internet to thousands of East Village and Brooklyn customers without the aid of any corporate ISP. Here is how they do it:
How Does a Mesh Network Operate?
NYC Mesh bought a gigabit-speed connection to an Internet Exchange Point (IXP). From an antenna called the Supernode, perched atop the IXP’s tall building, NYC Mesh broadcasts to an ever-growing mesh of WiFi access points. The access points connect home WiFi networks to the Supernode, and to other nearby access points. NYC Mesh’s coverage expands from its edges outward as new access points even further from the Supernode come online.
Their Internet is faster than yours, unless you’re paying hundreds of dollars per month. Download speeds of 80-110 Mbps are standard. There are no data caps or overage charges to worry about. NYC Mesh will not prioritize one service over another. It also won’t log its customers online activity.
NYC Mesh saw a spike in requests to join its mesh last December, when Net Neutrality rules were repealed. The group had about 500 requests in all of 2017; so far in 2018, over 1,300 New Yorkers have asked to join NYC Mesh.
Miraculously, donations keep the whole show running. This is a community-owned network, not a shareholder-owned profit machine. All of the volunteers have day jobs, just like the BBS sysops from the dial-up days. Once you pay for that IXP connection, the Internet does not cost a lot.
A case in point is a video production company that owns a building within sight of the Supernode. The big ISPs wanted tens of thousands of dollars to install and lease the ultra-fast connection that modern digital video production requires. NYC Mesh got the building connected for an installation fee of a few hundred dollars and a promised monthly donation.
NYC Mesh recently erected its second Supernode antenna, connected to another IXP in Brooklyn. This map shows NYC Mesh’s messy but impressive coverage area.
NYC Mesh is not the only urban community network. Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative is bringing Internet access and technical career training to some of the poorest neighborhoods in that long-struggling city, where 40% of residents have no Internet access available to them, even if they can afford to pay.
During Detroit’s economic meltdown, the big telcos and cable operators saw no profit in bringing Internet to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Miles and miles of “dark fiber” lie beneath the streets, fiber optic cables that see no Internet traffic; those cables were laid decades ago in anticipation of a boom that became a bust.
But now, a dedicated team of volunteers is going door to door, recruiting trainees for a 20-week course in wireless network engineering. Graduates become “digital stewards” of their neighborhoods, helping others get online and learn how to use the Internet.
The Equitable Internet Initiative is operated by the Detroit Community Technology Project, which is funded by grants from Allied Media Projects. Customers pay if they can, but are not turned away if they can’t.
Perhaps the largest community network in the world is Gulfi.net, with over 34,000 users in the Catalonia and the Valencian Community of Spain. Gulfi.net is growing without regard for national borders. As of April, 2017, Gulfi.net claimed 46,000 kms of wireless links (presumably, the total of estimated distances between nodes) and more than 33,000 nodes.
Community networks like these even have their own Wireless Commons License, a document describing principles, privileges, and responsibilities of those who use and maintain open, free networks. To quote the Wikipedia entry: “In summary it gives the right to use the network for any purpose unless you affect the operation of the network or the freedom of other users, the right to know and learn any detail of the network and its components, the freedom of joining or extending the network following the same conditions.”
Community networks are a counterpoint to corporate assimilation. If you have a tale of another community network initiative, I invite you to tell it in the comments below.
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 14 May 2018
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Do You Really Need an ISP? (Posted: 14 May 2018)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved