Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Wireless Mesh in a Concrete Jungle: How Community Networks Build Local Ties - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 414
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks to Scott Rasmussen, an organizer with the nonprofit, volunteer-run community network NYC Mesh. Scott shares his experiences connecting residential New Yorkers and local businesses across the city to fixed wireless, and the creative solutions they’ve taken to build a hyperlocal network in a cityscape of tall buildings.
Scott and Christopher also discuss the impact and potential of locally owned mesh networks. They talk about reliability and resiliency, and how the design and deployment of NYC Mesh meant that it was among the few to remain online after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. They talk about the power of self-determination and decentralization, and how owning the network offers opportunities to build neighborhood cohesiveness and empower the community. They talk about the power of a network that’s not artificially throttled to support price tiers, doesn’t fund big monopoly telecoms, and prevents its traffic from data mining for advertising efforts.
Scott describes NYC Mesh’s commitment to diversity, transparency, equity, education, and outreach, and how the network’s structure and financing — it’s entirely funded by voluntary recurring donations of $20 by member-owners — mean that no one loses connectivity during times of hardship. NYC Mesh also has a number of projects aimed at affordable housing, and he tells Christopher about the particular challenges to connecting old residential buildings.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Scott Rasmussen: I think at a fundamental level it's about community control, community self determination, and our ability to own our own means of communication.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to Episode 414 at the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Scott Rasmussen of NYC Mesh. NYC Mesh is a volunteer driven, high quality, wireless network that stretches across three boroughs of New York City. Scott explains that much of New York doesn't have a good Internet access and talks about why NYC Mesh is a good model for expanding Internet access to low income populations. Scott also notes how excited people are to finally have an affordable community option and how inspired people get about these issues when they realize they can build their own network. Now, here's Christopher talking with Scott Rasmussen of NYC Mesh.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance and I'm here talking with Scott Rasmussen, an organizer with NYC Mesh. Welcome to the show, Scott.
Scott Rasmussen: Thanks so much for having me, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to learn more about what's going on in New York City with this Mesh project, but the first thing I wanted to ask you is, you're an interesting guy, you got a lot of opportunities to do different things, why are you such a fan of breathable fabric?
Scott Rasmussen: It dates back to my early work in the fashion industry and it really took off from there. No, my interest in NYC Mesh really, I think stems from years of working on Capitol Hill. I worked for five years doing telecommunications policy as an advisor to members of Congress, and really got an insider's view of a lot of the fights that go on with the FCC, between Congress, and all the big picture discussions that happen on the Hill. Was there on the Hill when net neutrality was repealed and a host of other sorts of major actions, some of which were great under Chairman Wheeler and many of which were quite terrible under our current chairman of the FCC.
Scott Rasmussen: What I learned in a lot of that, and what I felt often, is that there's a lot of talks going on, a lot of letters being written, a lot of letters being shredded, and not much action to actually serve people. Upon moving to New York City a little over two years ago, started trying to just search out opportunities to become involved in local broadband advocacy and understanding the lay of the land. NYC Mesh was an organization, and pretty much one of the only organizations I really know of in the city, that's entirely focused on bridging the digital divide, on trying to make real change for real people in their communities on the ground.
Scott Rasmussen: I found that inspiring. So often in our activism and the work that we do, it's posting on social media, or writing letters, or hoping that some legislation may get passed. Those are all great things to be doing, but there's something really satisfying, that brings me a lot of joy and a lot of pleasure in my work, of being able to get on somebody's rooftop and connect somebody online for the first time and explain to them that actually our service, if you will, our community network, doesn't require any kind of monetary contribution if you don't want to.
Scott Rasmussen: We're really focused on getting our hands dirty, doing the work on the ground to make real change at a local level. That's what keeps me inspired.
Christopher Mitchell: I really wanted to make sure we touched on this, how excited people get. This is something different in terms of a locally owned mesh network that is driven by the community. You and I met in Waimānalo, in Hawaii, and in terms of the Indigenous Connectivity Summit run by the Internet Society. I was just taken away at how inspired people are. I was curious, does it ever get old when you work with someone, and someone new volunteers and you're on their roof, and they just start really getting into it?
Scott Rasmussen: Not at all. I've probably done, gosh, 30, 40, maybe more installations during my time with NYC Mesh and it is a pleasure each and every time. It is so rare in our world, I find, that you can get people inspired and excited about telecommunications and the policies that exist there. Everybody has their feelings about the big telcos, but the conversation usually ends there. This is an opportunity to take the conversation further, and further in a direction that makes people feel empowered to make change. There's nothing quite like it and it continues to inspire me every day. It's why I do the work.
Christopher Mitchell: Regarding NYC Mesh, and mesh more generally, mesh is sometimes used for different meanings. Can you just explain what is meant by the mesh part of NYC Mesh?
Scott Rasmussen: Yeah, I think that's an accurate depiction. A lot of folks have a different interpretation of what mesh is. Sometimes it's technical and sometimes it's political in terms of how you're defining it, very much so. We're trying to build a resilient, localized network, and we really employ any technology that's appropriate to be able to do so. Mesh is referring to a series of interconnected antennas or nodes on a network where it's decentralized, I suppose. If one node goes down, there's other ways that Internet traffic or your communications can get around from point to point. It's largely the theory being a decentralized network.
Scott Rasmussen: We take a lot of that same thinking and network theory to New York's landscape. To just give a very real example of how mesh may play out at a local scale and network for that nature, New York City has a ton of tall buildings in it. One of your neighbors may be able to see a local hub or a local, we call them hubs, it's your neighborhood way to connect online and you have the little antenna on your rooftop that may connect to that hub. You may have a large building in your way, and because so much of our technology depends on line of sight, you may be able to see your neighbor, but you can't see the local hubs. We try to create these very local networks that are deeply interconnected using mesh technology, mesh antennae, to be able to get around these various obstacles that we may have on our city landscapes.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the directions I want to take this, we're going to come back and pick up at a couple of different points about what this is, but just so people have a better sense, if I want to join NYC Mesh, what do I do and what do I get?
Scott Rasmussen: We're community networks, and I think it's important to say that upfront. We're not an ISP and we really tried to be intentional about that. We can talk a little bit later about what that means, but we really think that there's some fundamental differences. As a member of our community, as somebody who wants to get online utilizing NYC Mesh, essentially all you do is go to our website, nycmesh.net.
Scott Rasmussen: You fill out a small join form. We actually have a line of sight tool that allows folks, as soon as you put your address in, to figure out whether you have a line of sight to any hub in our neighborhood. That basically means if you were to put an antenna up on your roof or outside your window, can you actually see part of our network? Is there a way that you could reasonably connect to us? If you can, then we will start a back and forth with you.
Scott Rasmussen: Again, I want to clarify we're all volunteers, so when I say we, it just means probably one of your neighbors or somebody in another borough of the city. I'm not a paid customer service representative or something like that. We'll look at you, we'll have a back and forth, and you'll have the opportunity to be able to schedule an install.
Scott Rasmussen: Our installs, we try to ask everybody if they're able to afford it, to try to reimburse our organization for the cost of the equipment, the antennae we may put up, an indoor router, things like that. We don't turn anybody away, we think that the Internet really is for everybody, and that cost should not be an impediment to joining.
Scott Rasmussen: After a small back and forth, to make sure that you have a line of sight and the ability to connect, you'll schedule a date and a team of volunteers, usually two, three, maybe even four people will come by and work with you for two or three hours to do a home install, get you set up online. From there on out, you have high speed home Internet access using NYC Mesh.
Scott Rasmussen: You also have the ability to participate in our network. We try to host services within our network to find other neat ways to be able to use our network to build community, build neighborhood communities so that you can use mesh. Even if you don't have access to the global Internet, to be able to communicate with some of your neighbors or folks that may be nearby.
Scott Rasmussen: Most folks use it for day to day Internet access. We ask everybody when they join, if they're able to afford it, to contribute $20 a month. That keeps the lights on for rental on some of our roofs, subsidizes installs for other folks. 100% of those donations are reinvesting in our network. If folks can't afford the $20 a month, that's fine too. We don't turn anybody away.
Scott Rasmussen: Actually during a COVID right now, because so many folks are losing their job in the city, it's almost every day that we're getting emails from people saying, "Hey, I was recently laid off," or, "I'm no longer working right now. I need to cancel my donation." As sad as it is to say, I suppose, it's really nice to be on the receiving end of those emails at times, because we got to respond, "That's not a problem at all. It's not going to interrupt your service, it doesn't make any difference to us whether you donate or not. We really hope that things will look better for you in the future and maybe you'll be able to contribute again. In the near term, you have other priorities in life and we want you to be able to focus on those."
Christopher Mitchell: Some of the community mesh networks in the past have been ones in which people would maintain a cable or a fiber connection and they would contribute that bandwidth to the pool. But that's not what you do, right?
Scott Rasmussen: That's occurrent in certain instances, we have a discussion about it anytime that may be occurring, mostly because we really want to build our own network. That's our mission and goal, it's not haring Verizon's network. There are ways that somebody may come to our network with the existing connection and try to offer it up and we may utilize it, but the longterm goal in the transition is to eventually empower that person to be able to completely cut the cord and their relationship with their ISP and be a part of our network.
Christopher Mitchell: Then one other thing that popped up when you were speaking earlier, you said that someone from another borough might be answering their call. I think a lot of people would assume that this is something that exists in a neighborhood in a borough. How wide does it go?
Scott Rasmussen: We're, right now, largely in Manhattan and Brooklyn. We're working towards a really big expansion into the Bronx right now. Some of our longer connections are a couple of miles. It expands across a decent amount of New York City. We have a map online that you can take a look at.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. In doing a little bit of background to make sure I wasn't totally ignorant as I asked you questions, I came across three bullets that I just loved that describe NYC Mesh. That is, "Our connection speed isn't artificially throttled to hike the price. Our data isn't spied on or sold by corporate creeps." And my favorite, frankly, is, "We don't pay into the cable cartel, which means we don't fund their lobbying, advertising, lawyers, executive salaries, bonuses, and dividends." I quite like that. It gives you a sense not only is this something you're participating in that's community, it's a reminder that the rest of us really are forging the chains of our own domination.
Scott Rasmussen: Every volunteer in NYC Mesh, and every organizer, comes with a different set of ideas about why they're doing this work. One thing that I do recall and think about every single time I put a antenna on somebody else's roof, especially when it's somebody who may have existing service through an ISP, is at the end of the day, that's probably $600, $800 less in the pocket of some major ISP in New York City.
Christopher Mitchell: Actually, I forgot to note it's an important comparison, but again, historically I feel like 10 years ago, the mesh wifi that we saw, which was primarily wifi based mesh at that time, was typically slow enough that you'd struggle to stream Netflix as it came out and things like that. But you're talking about a connectivity that can handle much more significant loads.
Scott Rasmussen: Yeah. When we do a site survey at a new install we'll set up and talk through a new member, show them what the anticipated speeds we have by pointing an antenna and getting a good idea for it. If it's anything less than 25 down we'll typically say, "Be forewarned, this may not be the ideal solution for you." Speeds on our network typically range much higher than 50 down and above.
Christopher Mitchell: I think the greatest fear that I have about this approach, and frankly, the reason I haven't done more to raise it up, is that I worry about reliability. It may be wrong, because I know that this gear actually is very reliable even without people being paid to sit on it constantly. But I worry that when something happens, you're relying on volunteers to get it back up. I'm curious if you can give me a sense of what it's like, but also you might just remind people that New York City cable and Verizon Fios isn't necessarily rock solid either. It might be a situation where you don't have to be the fastest person in the world, but you have to run faster than the person you're with to outrun the bear.
Scott Rasmussen: Yeah. I think it is a combination both, to be entirely honest. To give an example to your latter point, my partner lives in Brooklyn and has service through Verizon, received notice that her Internet would be cut off for three to six months because of a series of repairs that were being done in her neighborhood. You can just imagine that notice.
Scott Rasmussen: In many communities of New York City, it is not uncommon to have only one or two Internet service providers. I think lots of folks have maybe misconception that New York City is the "center of the world," has this incredible choice of ISPs that everybody can choose from. Most of New York City is served by two ISPs. It's rare and only limited communities have three or more choices. It's really not the free market, you have your choice of any ISP you want, kind of situation.
Scott Rasmussen: To your earlier point about reliability, it's a great point and it's something that we struggle with regularly. As I was describing earlier, the excitement of installing an antenna on somebody's roof, pays dividends. It makes me smile, it makes me feel great about the work that we're doing. Responding to somebody's inquiry about why their wifi isn't working is less inspirational work. It's often trying to walk that ground between what it means to be a community network and how to challenge and change that customer-ISP relationship, and how we can rethink that through more community engagement and education, and trying to have local digital stores on the block. We're constantly trying to think about ways to change that relationship and to be more responsive and make sure that we're being quick.
Scott Rasmussen: I can say that we have a pretty incredible dedicated team of volunteers at this point. The moment that you get a service request in, it'll be minutes likely before somebody's responding and working to troubleshoot. We do a lot of work trying to get very active volunteers in any neighborhood so that if somebody does in fact have to show up to your house to be able to do some of the work, or to a neighborhood hub that serves you, that we can have somebody there in a matter of hours, if not a day.
Scott Rasmussen: We've been incredibly successful on that front. We're always trying to improve and do better. Luckily a lot of the work can be done remotely. That's just changes in technology. Then when it has to be done in person, it's a lot more about trying to just make sure we're constantly improving the equipment that we have so that it is more reliable, more storm resistant, more whatever it is.
Christopher Mitchell: If my greatest concern is reliability, I have to say that my greatest fascination and interest is something you alluded to earlier, which are services that are only available in network. Things that you're doing locally, that I, as someone who outside the network, would not be able to see. I think a lot of people still think the Internet means that I can connect to any computer I want from where I am, but it means that I can get into any network that allows me to get into it really. You can do things on your local network there that would be private. I'm curious what you use that for.
Scott Rasmussen: It is not the most used aspect of it simply because I think you have to be a slightly more tech savvy person, as you're mentioning, to be aware of it. Folks do host services on it. We're trying to move a lot of our surface, our own organizational stuff onto our network so that we're not hosting it outside of our network, so that when there is a ticketing request, let's say on service, that that's actually hosted entirely in our networks so we're not depending on the outside Internet.
Scott Rasmussen: There are certainly some benefits to that. One, Hurricane Sandy shut off a lot of telecommunications networks in New York City. Some mesh networks were the only ones that survived. Our ability to operate as a resilient, with respect to natural disasters and all of that, network really does depend on our ability to host services inside. But also allows people to be able to communicate to each other about things that are happening in their neighborhood or things locally that may be going on and try to build community that way. I think we really see it as an opportunity to try to, as I mentioned, try to build community, bring people together, have people test things out, play around with new ideas, and really be an incubator for things that they'd like to take the next level.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that's important. I feel like, I guess in some ways, the makerspace revolution is slower than I thought it might be as we go back to enthusiastic hopes, I don't know, five, 10 years ago. But nonetheless, there's enthusiasm here and I think I was wrong in terms of not recognizing more of the promise in that people want to get involved with this stuff. It's not rocket science and it's something that really can help people develop that curiosity that we need for innovation and to have a really vibrant community, I think.
Scott Rasmussen: I really agree. A huge amount of our work is obviously maintaining our network, but the other big chunk is education and outreach. I, for example, am not a technical person. Two years ago I could not have told you anything about installing an antenna or any of the technical aspects of monitoring, maintaining a network, and have really learned those skills. We try to share that with everybody, we do some collaborations with local libraries on how to build your own Internet. But it's a theory that hopefully we can teach folks here and then they can go home, work with us to get an antenna, and then get Internet access through us. That's an incredible partnership where somebody can discover, learn new things, exercise their curiosity, develop some of their skills, but at the end of the day, also walk away with an incredibly useful and tangible thing, being able to get online every day.
Christopher Mitchell: I feel like we've just spent 20 minutes talking about all the different ways in which this is, it's fascinating, it's incredibly useful, it's something that's needed and helpful. But if I was to just ask you for the elevator pitch answer of why is it important for something like NYC Mesh to exist?
Scott Rasmussen: I think at a fundamental level it's about community control, community self determination, and our ability to own our own means of communication. I think more and more what I see in the world around us and what's going on really screams to me the importance of being able to have a say and an ability to be able to communicate with others through a means that we collectively own, and collectively talk about, and have the ability to be able to manage and control.
Scott Rasmussen: I think that that's, at a very fundamental level, the work that we're trying to do is empowering folks to be able to own their means of communication. At one point that may have been the postal service and we made a lot of choices. I know I don't have to tell you about municipal networks and the importance of municipal owned broadbands. I think that this is a different kind of model. I think of us as being part of a laboratory of experiments on ways to be able to deliver broadband and that there's a lot that can be offered through this grassroots community led approach that is different. It creates a different place and opportunity for folks to be able to engage in how they communicate with others.
Christopher Mitchell: I'd really like to see a municipal fiber network embrace this. There's populations, especially in states that have laws that make it hard for municipal networks to serve low income folks by restricting what prices they can offer. Tennessee and Iowa are two states that do that. It would be really great if we saw municipal networks basically saying, "You know what? We'll take care of the back haul for you, we'll keep it affordable, and we're going to support you rolling out these networks particularly in low income areas."
Scott Rasmussen: I completely agree. I think the idea of community control, and one thing we've looked at the New York City Internet master plan, and had a lot of these ideas that we're talking about, municipal health common backhaul or common network that other folks can be able to tap into them. But one thing that I didn't see in that report was much about local community control and input. I really think that's where a lot of community networks have a lot to offer, that last mile approach that allows communities to be able to control what connectivity in their neighborhood or area looks like. To your point exactly, I think there's an incredibly synergistic relationship that could occur between municipalities and community networks to be able to build out that last mile connectivity.
Christopher Mitchell: You have some interesting projects going on. I'm curious, I want to steer you in the direction of the affordable housing project that you're working on, but in the meantime, I'm curious if the demographics of your network are varied significantly. Is there a lot of diversity or is it really a lot of white guys like you and I that are just technical, that like playing around? You have a sense of who makes up your user base?
Scott Rasmussen: Yeah, it has changed dramatically over the last five years. To go through a brief organizational history, we really started in 2014, 2015. At that time it really was a bunch of white guys playing around with routers, and figuring out ways to interconnect, and other sorts of interesting networking ideas. It's grown incredibly since then. In 2016, we've developed our first super node, which is our ability to be able to broadcast Internet and connect it to a Internet exchange point, which is really the founding of our modern day NYC Mesh as it is.
Scott Rasmussen: Our mission even since then has evolved significantly to being a lot more focused on the digital divide, which has led to a lot more recruitment and trying to empower people of color, women, folks who are not traditionally represented in technology. And having a mission that we're trying to seek out folks who don't have an existing Internet connection who have fallen through the cracks of our current system, and find ways to get them connected.
Scott Rasmussen: Certainly it is still very much a white, male tech space, but we've made, I think, huge strides in the last couple of years to really try to change that, and try to attack that head on and find ways to be able to empower folks locally. That's, I think, a huge asset that we have when I'm talking about local community control is it's really about trying to empower folks locally to do that. Not every neighborhood in New York City looks the same and we need to be able to foster community control that reflects the diversity of the folks who are being served.
Christopher Mitchell: This effort to connect affordable housing now, it seems, I don't know, as someone who again, is still learning about NYC Mesh, it seems like something that's different in some ways, because you're not just working with a family in a building. Is it different and what exactly are you doing to connect to affordable housing?
Scott Rasmussen: We have a number of projects ongoing in New York to connect with affordable housing developers as well as NYCHA, which is the public housing authority here in the city. Each project looks slightly different. It's somewhat hard to generalize, but for the most part, our goal is to provide a basic layer of connectivity. Particularly in a lot of buildings here in the city, a lot of affordable housing developments are pretty old buildings, they may not have internal wiring. The idea of building out a fiber connection to every single apartment in the building can be quite the undertaking at first.
Scott Rasmussen: Usually what we're looking at is, okay, how can we connect all of the common areas to begin? How can we connect the grounds, common areas, places where people congregate, where at least you can get a basic connection? And then, how do we expand from there? That may be phase one and then phase two may be okay, let's talk about wifi access points in the hallways and get some level of penetration into individual apartments or units. Then phase three ultimately, let's talk about trying to wire the building differently.
Scott Rasmussen: That's generally the course of action that we've been trying to take, but it really looks somewhat different for each and every building. We're just starting to be able to do this work and we're incredibly excited about it, and just have a couple of test beds that we're looking forward to being able to show off in the coming weeks and months. I think it'll be a growing opportunity for us to learn.
Christopher Mitchell: Is one of your biggest challenges just finding power where you need it? Where you want to put an antenna?
Scott Rasmussen: It can be a challenge. For the most part we've mailed to make it work. In all honesty, light posts are great opportunities. Those may be on the grounds of larger developments. Rooftops generally have a radio room, or an elevator shaft, or something we can try to tap into. There's usually a host of possibilities. But it can be a challenge, there's no doubt about that. We spend a lot of time crawling around on rooftops and places like that to try to figure out where we can get power from.
Christopher Mitchell: I think the last thing I want to leave with is just noting that this is a model that you're helping to export. Baltimore is a place that we're seeing this pop up. We've certainly seen Detroit taking their own approach in a lot of ways. But this is something that people may be able to plug into something that's already happening, or they could try and start it afresh in their community.
Scott Rasmussen: Yeah, absolutely. We really focused on trying to do that. If you visit nycmesh.net you can see information and documentation on every single thing we do. We really make an effort to be transparent exactly because we want to export this model and talk to other folks about how they can implement it in their communities. It's going to look different in every community, particularly if it's a rural community, if it's an urban community, if it's low income. Whatever it is, your community will look different than in ours here in New York City, just as every neighborhood in our city looks different and needs a slightly different approach. We try to develop resources of what we've done and what we've done wrong, and try to coach folks to how they can make something happen in their own backyard.
Christopher Mitchell: Scott, thank you so much for coming on, for doing the work you're doing. It's wonderful.
Scott Rasmussen: Great. Thanks so much, Chris,
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Scott Rasmussen of NYC Mesh. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was Episode 414 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.