Tapping Into Existing Bandwidth to Create Community WiFi

8:34 minutes

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

In some cities, free public wifi is popping up in parks, downtown centers, and other busy public spots, but open connections and access to affordable internet are still missing in certain parts of the country. In Pittsburgh, Adam Longwill, the executive director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communications, is creating a “mesh network”—wifi access points that are built off of existing bandwidth. Longwill talks about how he built this community network.

Segment Guests

Adam Longwill

Adam Longwill is executive director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow.

Here in New York, Wi-Fi kiosks are popping up on the streets where they used to be lined with phone booths. I’m sure you have your own kiosks where you live. And there are more parks and public spaces getting linked up. But not every city or neighborhood has the resources for that.

In Pittsburgh, my next guest is connecting the wireless broadband already there into a type of do-it-yourself public Wi-Fi. It’s something called a mesh network. And here to tell us about that and what he’s doing is Adam Longwill, Executive Director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities in Pittsburgh. Welcome to “Science Friday.”

ADAM LONGWILL: Hi, Ira. It’s nice to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: So how is a mesh network different? You’re putting together, I know you started this five years ago. How is it different from the Wi-Fi we have now?

ADAM LONGWILL: That’s a good question. It’s much different. It’s important to understand that the internet is set up like a Christmas tree, where you have relatively few big routers from big ISPs at the top. And most of us are hanging out at the bottom of that hierarchical tree of routers. A mesh network is different in that it allows for those smaller routers to route traffic instead of handing it off up the tree to the bigger ISPs to route it back down the tree to someone who might be across the world or across the street.

IRA FLATOW: So are you taking the routers that we all have outside? How do you create the mesh network, I guess, is what I’m asking.

ADAM LONGWILL: We used to take many off-the-shelf routers and just put them in watertight cases and put them outside. Unfortunately, in 2014, the FCC changed some rules for manufacturers to increase ensurances that the routers that they manufactured weren’t used in ways that broke certain regulations. So we’ve had to go to China. And we now build our own waterproof boxes and put these small, small routers about the size of a credit card in these boxes and attach an antenna to them and just attach them to your facade and connect them to a power source and your internet access, if you’re willing to donate it.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s the key. I have to donate a share of my home internet access into the mesh so everybody can use it?

ADAM LONGWILL: Yes, that’s right. The problem with existing public Wi-Fi models is that they’re very top heavy. You have to spend a lot of money upfront.

And there’s a high maintenance fee. You have to pay for dedicated bandwidth. You have to have an IT company monitoring these things every month. And that causes a lot of public Wi-Fi networks to fail, because after two years, the money has dried up.

With our model, you can put up these very inexpensive devices. We sell them online for $75 apiece. And you basically just share your existing bandwidth, and it’s really no cost to you. There’s no recurring fees. We don’t charge anything beyond the hardware in the installation.

IRA FLATOW: So people then have to chip in their own money to become part of this mesh network by buying those routers, those special routers.

ADAM LONGWILL: Yes, they can purchase these routers from us, although we have instructions on our website at metamesh.org on how to build, how to configure routers yourself. We were very insistent at the beginning that we didn’t want to use proprietary hardware or lock people into buying from us. We’re a nonprofit after all.

And we wanted people to be able to join the network without having to go through us. It’s this idea of decentralization just like we have in the network itself decentralized routing. Well, we want to decentralize ownership and who controls the ability to get on the network. So anyone can get a router and configure it themselves and put it up.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s no fee, then. Once you’re part of the mesh network, you don’t have to pay a fee to stay on.

ADAM LONGWILL: Once you’re part of the mesh network, there’s no fee, no.

IRA FLATOW: But you’re hoping people will buy enough routers themselves to contribute to the maintenance and expansion of this community of routers?

ADAM LONGWILL: Well, purchasing routers from us is just one way that we make money. We’re mainly concerned with educating communities, teaching them how to build these networks themselves. What we do is usually we do a crowdfunding campaign or write a grant and get a grant from Google or a grant funder locally, grant maker locally.

And we will go into the communities that we are targeting, teach people about networking, wireless, radio, all those things. And then teach them how to install these wireless routers and help them install, so that again we decentralize who controls the network. If we can empower a community to build the network themselves, we can put money on that it’ll last beyond our involvement in it.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know there are cable companies that have their own hotspots in cities. If you are a subscriber, you can get a hotspot. You can use their hotspot anywhere. Are you getting any pushback from these people who are you saying you’re taking our business away from us?

ADAM LONGWILL: We haven’t had any pushback from them. And ISPs are certainly not our enemies, despite what you might think. It’s important that we have ISPs to connect people around the world. It would be basically impossible to build a mesh network or a small hop network that would encircle the entire world 200 feet at a time. We need ISPs.

But we think that there is an alternative way of building connectivity in our own local areas. So we haven’t had any pushback from ISPs. We’re not in the business of insisting that people break their contracts or go against their contracts with their existing ISPs if their ISP does not allow bandwidth sharing.

Certain contracts do allow it. And for those, we seek out those people who have those type of contracts. And we ask that they share their bandwidth.

We’re also in the process of getting our own bandwidth. We have actually just hooked up with a fiber optic provider in the state of Pennsylvania. And they are graciously donating 500 megabit connection of fiber optic capacity that we’re going to pump into our mesh network.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet coming from CS Landon that says, how do you contribute to the mesh network without compromising your own encryption network security?

ADAM LONGWILL: That’s a great question, and one that we’ve had to face very early on. What we do is we have firewall rules built into each of the routers that prevents someone– as we say, on the mesh, someone on the public side of the network– from accessing computers, IP addresses on your private network.

So there’s a set of private IP ranges that are commonly used, such as, et cetera. And we basically just create a rule that says, hey, if someone in the public is trying to access a 192.168 whatever IP address, just drop the packet. So that packet never even makes it onto the ethernet. It never even gets inside the owner’s home network.

IRA FLATOW: So if someone outside of Pittsburgh wants to start their own mesh network in their own city, how should they go about starting that, getting involved?

ADAM LONGWILL: We have provided some documentation on how to configure these routers. Or if you’re not technical at all, you are welcome to give us a call or go to metamesh.org and just buy one of these routers. We can ship them anywhere.

I just had a conversation with my new friends up in Kivalina, Alaska– hello to them– yesterday, who are very interested in setting up a mesh network for their small town. We also have instructions for multiple types of routers that you can find on metamesh.org.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Adam, thank you very much for taking the time to explain that to us. Sounds kind of exciting. Adam Longwill is Executive Director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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