The “mesh” saw the light of day in 2011, under the aegis of the non-profit Red Hook Initiative (RHI). The project’s goal: bringing high-speed online access to places and people who cannot necessarily afford it.
Now, users simply plug routers into their existing internet connection to join the virtual meshnet – or to access a local physical meshnet when one becomes available.
Costing no more than $50- $85, these “backbone nodes” allow residents to communicate digitally across the neighborhood. “The density of housing in Brooklyn and other New York City boroughs is fantastic, so that’s great for building a mesh,” according to Clive Thompson, who has sought out similar meshes in other areas. He goes on to explain that “many meshes also pool money in neighborhoods to pay for tall, range-extending antennas to be placed on top of mesh member’s buildings.”
Since its creation two years ago, the Red Hook mesh has expanded to serve two essential functions: First of all, it gives local residents who live below the poverty line access to the internet and allows them to stay connected. Now, more than 7,600 of the district’s inhabitants enjoy broadband access at home. Thompson adds that “in some of New York City’s low-income neighborhoods, where broadband penetration is lower than in wealthier districts, a mesh could let a whole district share a single high-speed connection.”
What started out as a low-key concept rapidly gained traction and popularity when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in late 2012; a time when most households were left with little to no electricity. During this period of utter chaos, the mesh stayed active and registered a drastic uptick in user numbers.
The second, and no less important, aspect of the scheme is the mesh’s nature as a user-owned wireless network that permits secure communications without surveillance or centralized organization. After all, we tend to forget that the internet as we know it is neither neutral nor private. Nearly everything a user does on the web can be collected and used against them. This problem of accessibility exemplifies a fundamental internet paradox. While the vast global network, in some ways, provides a truly democratic playground for new ideas and innovations, its underlying infrastructure is owned by a handful of multinational corporations.
Thus, taking matters into our own hands by building an alternative communications infrastructure only seems right.
A mesh network in Catalonia, Spain, for instance, is going from strength to strength. Guifi was started in the early 2000’s by Ramon Roca, an Oracle employee who wanted broadband at his rural home. The local network now has more than 21,000 wireless nodes, spanning much of Catalonia. As well as allowing users to communicate with each other, Guifi also hosts web servers, video conferencing services and internet radio broadcasts, all of which would continue to work if web access went down for the rest of the country.
In the past decade, similar networks have emerged in places like Greece, Germany, and even Afghanistan. Although each network serves a slightly different purpose, most of them were initially set up to serve a common (economic) need. They give people – as well as political activists – a safer and more reliable way to communicate. Naturally, mesh users are fully aware that if the NSA or another spy organization wanted to sound out the network, all it would have to do was join the mesh and start to harvest the accessible data.
In practice, however, it is a lot of work to keep track of all the mesh networks around. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, organizers built a local mesh to stay “safe” from the government’s spying eye, preferring not to connect to the global net at all.
“There are many different reasons why people create meshes and the type of mesh they create is tailored to the problem they are trying to solve,” Thompson concludes. Whatever the reason, the visionary zeal of creating an all-new global internet seems utterly contagious. Just like the early days of the global web, when the goal was to connect the world whilst retaining control, the mesh offers the same temptation: cheap and largely unsupervised internet access for all. As with any new technology, this brings both dangers and opportunities. In light of underprivileged neighborhoods like Red Hook and recent NSA surveillance reports, however, the demand for viable alternatives keeps growing – and these off-grid solutions are just the beginning …
Text by Franca Rainer
All pictures taken in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York City