Citizen Internet Comes To Allentown

Oct 20, 2015

Adam Longwill and Becky Zajdel from Meta Mesh with a new street banner advertising their network in Allentown.
Credit Jennifer Szweda Jordan / 90.5 FM WESA

Meta Mesh is making one Pittsburgh neighborhood one of the few places in the country with a free community wireless network--called a mesh network. By putting up what are called nodes--routers along with more substantial antennas--Meta Mesh offers Wi-Fi along Warrington Avenue in the Allentown business district.

Adam Longwill got the idea for Meta Mesh a few years ago when he was using a slow DSL connection. As he considered borrowing his neighbor’s Wi-Fi but instead he came up with a better plan.

 

“It got me thinking about, ‘How would I connect to my neighbors?’” Longwill said. “I would need a bigger antenna, a parabolic antenna. And I started looking at how radio frequencies work, and how I could get better range, better speed. And then I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a whole neighborhood doing this?'”

Before the Internet connected our phones and laptops, businesses often had--and many still do--internal networks called intranets. Mesh networks work on the samde idea, except instead of hard wiring connections among computers and limiting connections in defined spaces, data is transmitted over the same radio waves used by devices like walkie-talkies and more sophisticated mobile phones. And the goal is broadening the network signal, instead of keeping it inside. Mesh networks are emerging now because many people have wireless routers, and the cost of the technology is continually dropping, while the quality is improving.

Longwill mounted four antennas and routers a year ago in Allentown. Meta Mesh is managing the equipment and connections, but its goal is to teach and advocate for people to operate their own networks. While many people in the U.S. and elsewhere are concerned about the government being able to tap into private information or limit communications on the internet, Meta Mesh offers greater citizen control.

“No one person has the ability to monitor all of it or turn it off,” Longwill said. “Everyone can communicate with each other without the need of a corporation or a government entity or anyone else.”

Longwill said mesh networks like his have the added benefit of remain up and running during power outages because they have battery backups.

“So it’s an excellent tool for emergency use,” Longwill said. “I don’t want to say we look forward to the day, but we look forward to the day that Pitt Mesh saves a life.”

Wireless mesh networks have been used by militaries around the world where internet or mobile service is not readily available. The global non-profit program One Laptop per Child  also uses mesh networking in developing countries. Communities in Detroit and Buffalo have mesh networks about the size of the Meta Mesh network.

Because Allentown is a community with substantial economic challenges, Black Forge Coffee House owner Ashley Corts welcomed a Meta Mesh router above her store.

“It’s really empowering to be part of something like that, where, you know, in a lower income neighborhood, they’re not able to get those resources but we can help provide that,” Corts said.  

Meta Mesh also sells its nodes at $500 each to allow individuals to create their own networks wherever they are. There is no ongoing subscription fee.

“You can purchase these devices on our webstore,” Longwill said. “You just buy it and install it and it works. It’s like a blender.”

Meta Mesh’s next project is in another community in economic transition--Braddock. There, a $15,000 grant will support the installation of outdoor routers and educate people about how to create and maintain mesh networks.

In other tech news, also from Allentown, a new coding academy opens its doors in January--online enrollment is available now. And the 12th annual TechNow Conference featuring technology for nonprofits takes place in Cranberry Thursday, October 29.