An Internet David vs. Goliath: community group gives web connections at little or no cost

LOWER EAST SIDE, Manhattan — It can cost big money when the bill comes every month, and large corporations make billions of dollars from it yearly. Internet connectivity is big business, but a local cooperative that began in the Lower East Side continues to expand in New York City, and beyond, in an effort to make connectivity affordable for everyone.

NYC Mesh is a network of a few hundred users who get secure, high-speed internet connections at minimal cost. If a member can’t afford it, they get the internet at no cost, in some cases.

“What we're doing is building our own community network, and we're joining for free to other networks” said NYC Mesh founder and community organizer Brian Hall.

Five years ago, through a series of small routers, Hall, who is a computer programmer by trade, set up connectivity for his favorite neighborhood bar, where he and other organizers would meet and discuss ideas for wider internet accessibility for communities.

The cost at that time was only for the antenna he’d set up on the roof of the bar, called D.B.A., on First Avenue.

Other neighbors soon showed interest, and within a year, the low-cost network grew to a couple dozen members. PIX11 News profiled the organization then, in 2015.

NYC Mesh continued to expand and went from a community router network to having its members connect through a larger antenna system, called a supernode.

It now has three supernodes, which connect nearly 400 users. Most of them are in Lower Manhattan, and in western and central Brooklyn. However, as the organization’s map shows, its members also get service throughout Manhattan, and in New Jersey, just across the Hudson, as well as in the Bronx.

NYC Mesh is on course to expand into western Queens as part of its steady growth. Some of that is due to a national policy development, according to one of the organization’s main operators.

“A year and a half ago, when net neutrality was repealedwe saw a thousand, [or] two thousand percent increase” in members, said Scott Rasmussen, who’s also a community organizer. “We really started taking off."

Net neutrality is the policy of not favoring any internet entity over another. Large corporate providers refuse to make that the rule, now that the FCC no longer requires it.

NYC Mesh said that it sees net neutrality as an imperative, as part of its overall mission.

“We are your neighbors,” said Rasmussen.

Hall added that the numbers of neighbors is increasing exponentially.

“We're doubling every year or so,” he told PIX11 News. “Once we have about a thousand [members], we expect our first full time employee” to be able to maintain the system.

He said that at the group’s current rate of growth, they’ll reach the 1,000 mark by the end of next year.

“We tripled membership last year, and have doubled membership this year,” Hall said.

In contrast to commercial internet service, which can cost anywhere from around $40 to $140 per month, membership in NYC Mesh is $20 per month after an initial installation of hardware, costing about $160.

It’s a non-profit that accepts donations, so some members, if they can’t afford the fees, are able to pay little or nothing.

More information about NYC Mesh is available here.

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