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MileMesh Looks to Make Hoboken a Beacon for U.S. Mesh Networks

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, December 11 2013

Hoboken, jewel of the Hudson. Credit: Flickr

When Hurricane Sandy slammed the northeast in October of 2012, it was particularly unkind to the city of Hoboken, New Jersey. The storm knocked out power throughout most of the city for a week. Many of the town’s 50,000 residents crowded two blocks spared from the outage by a separate grid to juice up their phones and computers from power strips slung out of residents' front doors onto their stoops. Even after power returned, Internet and mobile service remained unreliable.

“When people lose their cellphones they go into a panic,” says Greg Dell’Aquila, a Hoboken real estate investor who owns the co-working space Mission 50. But the mobile service freak-out was just a symptom of a larger failure. Sandy “severely impacted both citizens’ ability to respond to the disaster and the city’s,” says Anthony Townsend, an urban planner, founder of public wireless nonprofit NYCwireless, and a Hoboken resident. But Hoboken’s fate wasn’t inevitable. An experimental public wifi program in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn suggested how a city or neighborhood might maintain at least a sliver of connectivity in the darkness following a disaster.

That Red Hook experiment is now serving as inspiration for Hoboken. This fall
Townsend and others started MileMesh, a grassroots project to provide Hoboken with a resilient backup communications network to withstand the next storm, and potentially provide the city with large swaths of free public wifi. MileMesh hopes to provide both a model for how to connect a community to the Internet without relying on fickle telecom giants, and how to propel a community to organize itself.

“The long term goal is to cover all of Hoboken in wifi,” says Chris Ferreira, one of MileMesh’s cofounders. Eventually, he says MileMesh wants to “share our model and open up our findings to other communities, so that way they can essentially do the same thing.”

The project is banking on advances in the cheapness and sophistication of mesh wireless technology. Mesh networks allow for people to broadcast out the bandwidth of their home or business Internet connection using radio antennas to become what are called nodes. The wifi broadcast by nodes can be picked up and amplified out by other nodes, whether or not they’re connected to the Internet. If a node goes down, the network can reconfigure itself with whatever bandwidth is available. According to Townsend, the system of point to point wireless links, “would let us create essentially a parallel Internet at the scale of the entire city.”

Mesh networks have been particularly popular and successful in Europe. A recent article by Clive Thompson in Mother Jones detailed the advantages of mesh, ranging from enhanced security (mesh is harder to eavesdrop on than traditional Internet) to its ability to function as a social hub with message boards and blogs for its community of users. The Athens network for instance features a Craigslist-like message board available only to those on the network.

MileMesh is being developed with Commotion, an open-source software program developed by the Open Technology Institute, and antennas from a company called Ubiquiti, each of which can support between 30 and 50 users concurrently with a range of a couple hundred feet. They will cost volunteers less than $100 (although the solar powered model is closer to $500). To ensure the network’s robustness, MileMesh has to worry about continued access to electricity and bandwidth. To guard against power outages, some of its nodes will be solar powered. To provide bandwidth, the founders plan to connect to a number of different ISPs, and hook up a node at a local data center, providing gigabits of bandwidth.

“We’re not starting a company, we’re not starting a project,” says Townsend, who has experience providing public wifi hotspots through his work with NYCwireless, “we’re trying to start a movement.”

But MileMesh can’t become the ambitious force Townsend imagines without getting the people of Hoboken on board with the project first.

“My motivating factor was this backup redundancy, I think that’s what you can sell to everybody,” says Dell’Aquila, who has volunteered his coworking space Mission 50 as the site of the first node. He thinks the broader benefits of MileMesh won’t be clear until the network is up and running. “I’m like wait a minute—you guys are doing this so that you can give everyone free Internet,” he remembers thinking. “How does that work?”

Townsend and the other founders expect organic growth, that as more nodes come online, the project will begin to gather its own momentum, with more people wanting to play a part as they experience its benefits. “With enough help to get started that it can start to take on a life of its own,” says Dana Spiegel, the director of NYCwireless, which awarded a $3,000 grant to MileMesh for equipment.

“There’s already been a lot of interest and work that’s been done by local organizations in Hoboken, both small businesses, and individuals to actually try and fill the network out,” says Spiegel.

Previous American mesh projects using Commotion have homed in on distressed communities in Red Hook and Detroit. MileMesh is looking to benefit from a city that is home to rich and poor alike. “This is the first mesh project that is going to happen in a place that has shit loads of assets,” says Townsend. The founders have gone from business to business, and community group to community group to get the word out about the project. They’ve received support from the city government, the tech community, and local churches.

Since the project got underway in September, MileMesh has attracted some 65 volunteers. Some will host nodes, others will help organize the community and spread information on how to install them. Recently MileMesh linked up that first node at Dell’Aquila’s co-working space Mission 50. “If we got 50 percent of the sites that have signed up now online that would make a huge impact,” says Ferreira. By the end of December, he plans to have at least five sites online, although this work has been slowed by less than pleasant working conditions of Hoboken’s rooftops in December.

Installations will slow down through the winter and pick up in the spring. How many people will be linked by then is an open question.

“It’s one of those things,” says Townsend. “There could be a hundred people, there could be 10,000 people using it.”