Internet Gangs: Inside the DIY Broadband Revolution

Toby Bloch does not look like your average internet installer. Instead of wearing a uniform with the company’s logo embroidered on it, he wore jeans and a thick canvas jacket. Instead of a truck, he drives a Subaru — its back stuffed to gills with an unorganized pile of hand tools, cables, and weird electronics sticking out antennas. And unlike most technicians, he won’t earn a cent for a date he heads to in Brooklyn.

But strangely enough, that’s exactly the point. Bloch does not work like normal internet installation technology because it is not. It does not work for Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon, or any other large Internet Service Provider (ISP). He’s a volunteer for NYC Mesh: a guerrilla internet service provider that helps residents get online without paying a monthly fee to the aforementioned carriers.

Andrew Hirschfeld

The group has been making waves in New York City by building its own DIY broadband network over the past few years — but alternative internet access isn’t the only thing NYC Mesh is building. As it spreads across the city, knot by node, it’s also building a blueprint – a blueprint that other communities across the country can follow as they confront monopolistic ISPs.

“It was really interesting how badly Verizon and Spectrum are doing their networks in terms of the bandwidth they can provide to their customers,” Bloch tells Digital Trends.

DIY Internet Case

Internet connection in the US is poor at best. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 19 million Americans do not have access to a reliable Internet. Just to put that into context, that’s 6% of the entire country’s population and roughly the population of New York State, the fourth most populous state, in its entirety.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, internet speeds have plummeted as more people are working from home. If you feel like your internet speeds are dropping during the pandemic, you’re not imagining things. In New York, speeds are down 24%.

But even with stagnant or declining speeds, broadband prices have skyrocketed in recent years. According to a 2020 report from New America, internet plans averaged more than $62 per month nationwide. In places like Atlanta, it’s much higher—more than $100 a month on average.

NYC Mesh node antenna sends WiFi access to city dwellers.
Andrew Hirschfeld

What is behind these high prices? There is likely to be a lack of competition. Most internet services across the United States are controlled by a few large companies. According to a 2020 report from the Local Self-Reliance Institute, nearly 50 million people only have access to broadband internet through a single provider. An additional 47 million people have access only through Comcast or Charter.

In New York, this problem has been amplified even further. In 2008, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg brokered a deal with Verizon that was supposed to revolutionize internet access in America’s largest city. The deal allowed the provider to take over the local monopoly of Time Warner and effectively ended it. But adding another ISP to the mix didn’t solve all of the city’s problems. To this day, 20% of New Yorkers still do not have an Internet connection in their homes.

New Yorkers are tired now – and that’s exactly where NYC Mesh comes in.

Going to Guerrilla Warfare: How Do-It-Yourself Internet Installation Works

So how exactly can one sign up for and install a broadband guerrilla service? Believe it or not, it’s surprisingly simple. When a customer arrives at NYC Mesh, a request is sent to the Slack channel which includes a network of volunteer technicians. The whole process is decentralized.

“It’s not a really open grassroots democratic organization. I think that’s one of the things that really draws me to it,” Bloch said, adding, “It’s a very flat organization. By design, they are a volunteer group, and there are no full-time employees or paid employees.”

An NYC Mesh volunteer installs networking equipment on the roof of a building.
Andrew Hirschfeld

Once a volunteer responds to the technology, they ask the potential customer to submit some panoramic photos on their rooftop so that the Mesh volunteers can see if the potential member has access to the network. If approved, the new member will have a wireless node on his rooftop. This node will connect to an adjacent node in another building.

Eventually, all of these nodes connect back to a few primary exchange points called “super nodes”, which provide direct access to the Internet – all without the need for any large Internet providers acting as intermediaries. The only limitation, really, is that the client has to be within the scope of a node for this to work.

Thanks to this technology, Mesh can provide a reliable and cheaper internet connection to a large part of the city. After installation, members pay what they can – although it is suggested that they pay between $20-$60 a month. The group is completely dependent on donations.

Scaling Up: DIY Internet in New York City and Beyond

NYC Mesh has grown exponentially in the past few years, but Bloch was quick to point out that what the organization does in New York is just a small part of the bigger picture. Ultimately, Misch wants to open the door wide and make these kinds of local internet technologies more accessible to the masses. The group does not want to be the gatekeeper.

“What we do is really democratize this technology and democratize knowledge,” Bloch said, adding, “We are spreading it and getting it to as many people as possible.”

Fortunately, they’ve got some help. While Mesh is one of the largest alternative internet service providers in the country, it is certainly not the only one out there. New York City is also home to a separate, broad-based community cooperative called People’s Choice, while a similar organization called Starry serves Boston residents.

Cellular radio towers on the roof of a building against the sky with clouds.
Jacob Babis / Unsplash

So does your DIY internet uprising have what it takes to spread nationwide?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is somewhat ambiguous. Given the regulatory landscape, it is easier for NYC Mesh to put pressure on large telecom force operators than it is for similar organizations in other parts of the country. Many states — including Texas, Minnesota, and Washington State — have regulatory barriers that either encourage or prohibit community Wi-Fi networks.

There was pressure at the federal level in 2021 to ban them altogether. This was introduced by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) and Bob Lata (R-Ohio), both serving on the House Commerce Committee and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Thus, McMorris Rogers has a significant conflict of interest. She has already received political donations from the largest US telecom companies for her election campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, through the PACS variant, Verizon Communications donated a total of $5,000, awarded Comcast $10,000, and chartered $5,000 before the initial race in 2022.

Besides legal challenges from the federal level, the success of the local Internet requires access to the high points, poles, and rooftops of apartment buildings in order to build a network of nodes. This makes the more widespread movement an uphill battle, as not every city in the United States is as densely populated or filled with tall buildings as New York City. Creating a community-managed mesh network in a more extensive suburb will be challenging.

However, there is still good reason to feel hopeful that NYC Mesh methods may spark a trend.

While it may not work everywhere, organizations like Mich can put enough pressure on telecom giants in major metropolitan areas that big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon may have to respond. Regardless of how that happens, whether that means boosting their coverage or lowering prices to stay competitive, the result will ultimately be the same for consumers: cheaper, more accessible, and more reliable internet.

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