Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Community-Owned Wi-Fi Changes the Game for Poor Neighborhoods

May 29, 2018
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How Community-Owned Wi-Fi Changes the Game for Poor Neighborhoods
Community Wi-Fi 1
Thanks to mesh Wi-Fi networks, residents in low-income neighborhoods can stay connected at little to no cost. Photo courtesy of The Point CDC
Mesh networks can come to the rescue in times of disaster, while also working to reduce the digital divide.

Dabriah Alston knows her home is at risk of flooding.

As a resident of Red Hook, a waterfront Brooklyn community, she saw firsthand the devastation wrought when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. The public-housing resident was inside her apartment when she and her family noticed how quickly the water was flooding into the street.

“I remember that the water started lapping on the windows of the first floor of the building, and that’s about five feet off the ground,” she says. She saw cars floating down the street. The lights began to flicker until they eventually went out. They wouldn’t turn back on for another 13 days.

All in all, it took the neighborhood over a month before things started to feel normal again. But there was something invisible that saved her, along with hundreds of other Red Hook residents, the majority of whom live in public housing: the neighborhood’s open Wi-Fi network.

Unlike personal networks that most people access in their homes via a single router, residents can connect — for free — to the area’s mesh network, which uses a system of nodes, or hot spots, strategically placed throughout the neighborhood. The nodes are accessed via cell phones and laptops and, in the case of an emergency, allow people to communicate with each other even when the internet is down.

For the people living in Red Hook, an area that is already remote by New York standards, that access was crucial. After Superstorm Sandy, the area had no power or cell service, much less reliable internet. It was, more than ever, off the grid.

Luckily, the neighborhood’s mesh network — set up by volunteers with Red Hook WiFi in 2012 before the storm — gave first responders and residents online access to exchange crucial information, such as official evacuation routes and where to go for food and first-aid supplies.

“When the [mesh was installed] we didn’t know it was something we would need, something that would become pivotal during the recovery,” Alston says. “At one point FEMA was using that Wi-Fi as well. It made it easier to find people who could volunteer, and it supported [Red Hook’s] recovery.”

The area’s mesh network is an offshoot of the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit that works in part to empower youth in Brooklyn through tech training, among other academic and job-prep programs. Mesh networks had already proven successful in Detroit, where a Digital Stewardship program had been set up by the Open Technology Institute that allowed neighbors to connect with each other wirelessly, even in the event of an internet outage.

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Red Hook Initiative teaches Brooklyn youth tech skills including mesh Wi-Fi installation.Photo courtesy of Red Hook Initiative

“That’s our hope, that the network is used as a source of communication throughout the neighborhood,” Robert Smith, a digital steward in Red Hook, told the New York Times in 2014. “We want to have both, that second layer, so if the Internet goes down we can still connect with each other through the mesh.”

The success of Red Hook’s mesh during and after Superstorm Sandy has led community organizers in other areas with similar characteristics — remote, largely low-income, and at risk of flooding or other climate change–related disasters — to follow in the coastal community’s footsteps.

It’s also a handy solve for the city’s “digital divide,” the term used to describe the lack of access to internet in poor neighborhoods, such as Red Hook and parts of Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. According to a report released last year, over 1.6 million households in New York City lack basic broadband internet.

The only costs for accessing the internet via a mesh network is the equipmenta rooftop router ranges from $60 to $100and upkeep, which is done by volunteers in some cases. And organizations that install a mesh oftentimes only ask for monthly donations — sometimes as little as $20, a pretty nice price-tag considering that service from a conventional ISP can cost hundreds of dollars a year.

“The big companies would have you think that there’s no option than them, especially in New York City,” Jason Howard, a volunteer programmer with NYC Mesh, told the CBC. “It’s so refreshing to come across this ability to do something else as an alternative.”

The network that NYC Mesh operates, which includes dozens of nodes in low-income neighborhoods mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, gives users internet speeds close to 100 megabytes per second (for perspective, Netflix requires 5 mbps for high-definition streaming).

In the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx — one of the country’s poorest, with 14 percent of its 52,200 residents unemployed — The Point Community Development Corporation is working on a mesh network of its own. Besides providing free internet to those unable to pay for at-home Wi-Fi, the nonprofit sees it as insurance against future disasters Mother Nature might throw its way.

“During Sandy, [the Red Hook Wi-Fi] network helped people communicate with their neighbors,” says Angela A. Tovar, director of community development at The Point CDC. “Hunts Point is by the water too, so it’s important to plan for the next storm.”   

Similar to Red Hook’s initiative, The Point CDC’s program, launched last September, hires residents at minimum wage to work as digital stewards. They are taught tech skills, such as coding, and help set up the mesh network, which includes the harrowing task of accessing rooftops and climbing towers to install the nodes and routers. Citi Foundation has invested more than $500,000 into the ongoing project, which will eventually include nodes on 10 local businesses and three high-rises in the area.

Superstorm Sandy crashed into Red Hook more than five years ago, but the destruction it brought remains fresh in the minds of residents.

“I still think about the storm a lot,” says Alston, who sees a silver lining. “It’s brought the community together and it gives us a feeling of empowerment [that] we don’t have to be caught unaware anymore.”

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