Editor’s Note (06/11/18): Scientific American is re-posting the following article, originally published January 8, 2018, now that the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules has gone into effect. Many fear the Trump administration’s December decision to kill the Open Internet Order could embolden broadband providers to manipulate how their customers access and use the internet, although it remains to be seen whether that will happen.
The Trump administration’s recent decision to kill the Open Internet Order has a lot of net neutrality advocates fearing the worst. Foremost among those concerns: that last month’s Federal Communications Commission vote might embolden broadband providers to manipulate how their customers access and use the internet. Although it remains to be seen whether that will happen, a small but growing number of users are taking matters into their own hands by exploring community- or municipal-owned, operated and funded internet access as a cheaper, faster and more neutral alternative to using large commercial internet service providers.
NYC Mesh, which typically gets 20 requests per month for membership to its community-based network in New York City, has received connection inquiries from more than 200 people since the FCC’s December 14 vote, says Brian Hall, a software consultant who helps manage the network. Self-organized, community-run systems including this one and Detroit’s The Equitable Internet Initiative have for years offered alternatives to corporate ISPs such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
The community approach typically involves organizers renting internet access from a local data center, and installing rooftop antennas and wi-fi routers that together act as access point for nearby residents. Unlike a home or office router that provides wi-fi service for a dozen or so square meters, a community network can provide a wi-fi signal for several square kilometers. Residents connect to the access point by mounting their own antennas on their buildings’ rooftops or outside their windows. These antennas receive the network’s signal and send it through a cable to wi-fi routers located inside members’ homes or offices. The setup is called a “mesh” network because any member can act as an access point, or node, for other members.
“People are so used to ISPs that they think that’s the only way to access the internet,” Hall says, adding ISPs have built their businesses by acting as gatekeepers between customers and the internet in order to extract as much money as possible. NYC Mesh pays about $1,000 per month to use the data center but does not charge members for access to the mesh network. The organization currently uses a grant from the Internet Society New York Chapter to pay the rent, and suggests members donate $20 per month to help cover ongoing rental and management costs.
NYC Mesh has 70 wi-fi router nodes, many of which are connected to two "supernodes" that provide internet access at about 100 megabits per second, or Mbps—more than twice as fast as the average commercial ISP connection—throughout Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. The original supernode is run out of a Lower Manhattan data center. In that setup the group’s antenna is mounted on the roof and their computer servers are a few floors below in what is known as the “radio room,” Hall says. The servers run software that manages the network. They are also linked via optical fiber cables to a “meet-me room”—the location in a data center where networks interconnect directly with the internet backbone, without needing an ISP to serve as an intermediary.
To access one of the supernodes, a resident needs to get a wi-fi router node and install an antenna—either on the roof of their building or in a window with an unobstructed line of sight to the supernode’s transmitting antennas. Members whose view of the antennas is blocked by a building or bridge can connect to other NYC Mesh members’ nodes. Residents can also access the network using the public LinkNYC kiosks that the city has installed throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. “We’re basically a wi-fi network,” Hall says.
Hall and others involved in NYC Mesh have recently been meeting to figure out how they can scale up the network to meet rising demand. One option is renting more antennas at supernode sites, and installing more large antennas atop tall buildings spread throughout the city and surrounding area. He estimates it would take between 20 and 50 supernodes to cover the city’s five boroughs.
Hours after the FCC vote Motherboard—an online magazine that Vice Media launched in 2009—announced plans to set up and operate its own community mesh network in Brooklyn, and to publish a how-to guide for others interested in doing the same thing in their own areas. The project is still in the early planning stages. “A lot of nonprofits and community groups and even just meet-up groups made of private citizens have built networks like this across the country,” Motherboard Editor in Chief Jason Koebler says. “Every time we write about one of these community groups, people ask, ‘What are the actual logistics of making something like this happen?’ We don’t have a good answer for them often, so we thought we’d start from scratch.”
Another approach, called municipal broadband or public broadband, offers residents internet access via a network supported by their city or town government—often with outside help from tech companies or public utilities. This allows local governments to provide the service at low prices—or for free. Starting in 2010 Google’s Fiber division began offering broadband service directly to consumers. Within a few years the company was delivering high-quality internet access to nine U.S. locations—including Kansas City, Austin and Atlanta. Unfortunately, a reorganization at Alphabet (Google’s parent company) prompted the company to announce in October 2016 it would not extend its Fiber services beyond those locations it already served, plus three locations where fiber installation was already in progress and completed in 2017.*
The thinking behind publicly owned networks is that municipal governments have greater incentive than privately owned ISPs (which have little competition) to provide citizens, government agencies and local businesses with free or affordable high-speed internet access. Large ISPs, in an attempt to keep competition at bay, have lobbied hard—and with some success—to block or limit municipalities from offering broadband services. Several states, including Tennessee and Colorado, now have laws banning municipally run networks. Despite those restrictions, the city council in Fort Collins, Colo., voted on January 2 to move ahead with plans to build a public broadband network. In November an additional 19 cities and counties throughout the state approved financing to study the feasibility of their own municipal broadband projects.
The FCC’s refusal to enforce net neutrality will “catalyze” more city hall conversations about the best way to deliver broadband to both citizens and businesses, says Lev Gonick, Arizona State University’s chief information officer and former CEO of the nonprofit broadband service provider OneCommunity. “At a minimum, [municipal broadband] efforts put incumbent providers on notice that a city is looking for a competitive marketplace,” Gonick says.
Municipalities can fund the set up and management of public internet service in a few ways, such as issuing bonds or collaborating with local broadband providers. Publicly owned broadband networks have a mixed track record, however. Some municipal networks are owned by public utilities, such as Iowa’s Cedar Falls Utilities or the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tenn. These fiber networks deliver citywide gigabit-per-second speeds (a gigabit is one billion bits) that far surpass even the best ISP service in the U.S. The country’s largest commercial ISPs offer average fixed (as opposed to mobile) broadband download speeds of about 64 Mbps whereas the average upload speed is under 23 Mbps, according to a report published last year by internet speed test company Ookla. (The FCC has for the past several years defined broadband as connection speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and three Mbps for uploads.) There are, however, also many examples of failed municipal broadband projects, including iProvo in Utah and the City of Monticello in Minnesota. Mismanagement and high costs doomed both projects.
Whether community- or municipal-run networks can handle a potential influx of tens of millions of disenchanted ISP subscribers is an open question. “It’s not appropriate at this time to say that we have the solution to the problem that the FCC’s decision has handed us,” says Nathan Schneider, a media studies scholar in residence at the University of Colorado Boulder. Still, these localized options are important at the very least for the pressure they put on ISPs to deliver good service at a reasonable price, Schneider says. “The fundamental problem with the situation that we’re in now is that [many] broadband providers are monopolies, but are not being recognized as such by the government,” he says. “If we’re going to do away with the principle of [net neutrality], on whose terms do we want to do that—a big corporation or a company owned and operated by its customers?”
*Correction (01/12/18): This paragraph was edited after posting. It originally referred to Google Fiber as a municipal-broadband subsidy program and referenced only nine of Google Fiber’s 12 locations in the U.S.