Connecting New York City To The Backbone: Meet NYC’s Mesh Network

Access to fast and affordable internet is a big issue in the USA, even in a major metropolis such as New York City. Amidst a cartel of ISPs who simply will not deliver, a group of NYC inhabitants first took it upon themselves to ease this situation by setting up their own mesh-based internet connections way back in 2013. Now they will be installing a new Supernode to take the installation base far beyond the current 300 buildings serviced.

As a community project, NYC Mesh is run as a non-profit organization, with its community members supporting the effort through donations, along with partnerships with businesses. Its router hardware consists out of off-the-shelf equipment (with a focus on the Ubiquiti NanoStation NSM5) that get flashed with custom firmware containing the mesh routing functionality.

As this article by Vice mentions, NYC Mesh is one of 750 community-led broadband projects in the US. Many of those use more traditional fixed wiring with distribution lines, but NYC Mesh focuses fully on wireless (WiFi) links with wireless mesh networking. This has the obvious benefit that given enough bandwidth on the Supernodes that hook into the Internet exchange points (IXP) and an efficient mesh routing protocol, it’s quick and easy to hook up new clients and expand the network.

The obvious downsides of using WiFi and RF in general is that they are not immune to outside influences, such as weather (rain), RF interference (including from other WiFi stations) and of course fairly limited range if there’s no direct line of sight. In a densely populated city such as NYC this is not much of an issue, with short hops between roof tops.

25 thoughts on “Connecting New York City To The Backbone: Meet NYC’s Mesh Network

  1. Sounds like Australia as well where the cartel of providers sit on their hands and happily take the money and provide little for it Except for a call Centre in the Philippines…

      1. And Canada. We’ve got basically two ISPs we can choose from where I live, and both are priced almost identical. It’s almost like there’s some collusion going on.

    1. That’s why they are using a mesh network. If an endpoint building loses line of site to it’s typical super-node, it can reconnect to a different super-node, perhaps at a lower uplink speed if the specific endpoint is significantly further away from the main super-node it uses.

      A super-node may have some antennas and directions blocked, but it wouldn’t be all of them. Cranes don’t typically setup in a ring around a building unless they are demolishing it, and the building owner likely knows about this in advance, so the super-node can be relocated before that happens.

      The nice part of a mesh is that the topology is software defined, and can be reconfigured on the fly.

      Even being in an endpoint building, I’d rather have Internet for all days but a couple instead of the other option of no Internet at all ever.

    1. Na, non profits can make money and can also pay their workers. That annoying guy begging for you to make a donation every time you tune into a public radio station, you can rest assured that he is being paid well to do that.

      1. Nope.

        At this point I think most or all NPR stations depend on paid staff, but it’s probably a stretch to say they are paid well.

        There are plenty of public radio stations that aren’t NPR stations, though, and that rely on a mix of volunteers, students, and interns for a lot of their programming, including begging for donations from listeners who think their donation is unnecessary because they believe that, somehow, magically, people are getting well paid.

  2. It’s funny because counteries that formerly were part of the Soviet Union (like Romania, Bulgaria or Poland) are now way ahead in terms of IT infrastructure development than this so called land of the free.

  3. >”Supernodes that hook into the Internet exchange points (IXP)”

    Ah, but then you’re dealing with peering. In order to get into the other ISPs networks through the IXP, you first have to enter into a peering agreement with them. Usually they carry your traffic for no cost if you accept their incoming traffic at no cost – but if they really want you out of the market they may refuse to deal with you in various ways.

    Like Comcast vs. Verizon, Comcast deliberately throttled Verizon by not upgrading the peering link capacity in between the two ISPs networks, so Netflix which was using the peering link to serve its customers in Comcast networks had to pay extra to buy redundant bandwidth off of Comcast directly. This could easily work the other way around, and Verizon could intentionally throttle Comcast to make Netflix worse on Comcast networks. etc. etc.

    1. That’s likely a big factor in choosing locations for the super nodes.
      In my state we have apartment buildings that sign contracts with a single ISP, dictating no other company is allowed to use that building owners wiring, and state law makes this legal.

      I’d imagine such buildings are excluded as options for the super node locations, or at least “end of the list”
      At the scale of BGP, and where a mesh means multiple network exchange points, it isn’t the end of the world if one is comcast only and another is verizon only, since traffic can transit over either just by routing through the mesh one more hop.
      Clearly that isn’t ideal, but then again neither is the situation they are in that made the mesh needed in the first place

      1. This is why I have opted to a 200gb data plan on a SIM card in an industrial router on my roof – with an ethernet cable running down into wifi AP in the house.
        Internet in my subburb is terrible, and limited to one company. Now I shop around for the best prepaid data plan – and swap sim cards over when I find a better deal. The joy’s of Australian internet!

  4. “a cartel of ISPs who simply will not deliver” is the most apt description I’ve seen yet. Substitute anything else that’s problematic (health care etc.) for ISP as well.

    /crankiness

    1. Healthcare and education both suffer from Baumol’s cost disease in a country with huge concentration of wealth. It’s fashionable in some circles to curse them as rent-seeking cartels. Those circles being the dumbass libertarians enabling further concentration of wealth under the smug delusion that they are getting richer and more free, and the ones that use the dumbass’ dumbass greed to enable their own further fleecing of us all.

    1. No it was a completely private disconnected system – as far as I remember.

      Also it appeared to be specifically a private ‘cell network’ that happened to have data too, rather than wifi only.

      It’s further confused by apparently using VHF which is 30-300MHz, so yeah … the closest tech there is possibly https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_Trunked_Radio which has a mesh-like mechanism… however, that won’t work with normal phones either …

      But hey, in a world dominated by two competing AGIs we’ll have to realise this is a work of fiction and try fairly hard not to shout at the TV :)

  5. If Eion Musk knows what he is doing and i believe he does his satellite system will be the death of the American cartel. Although its pitched at the third world some of us believe that the US is fast becoming part of that world.

    1. Starlink needs cheap terminals, which everyone seems to forget about. Bright shiny objects in space and a flame spitting rocket are sexy, but they are useless without a lot of terminal owning subscribers to pay for it all before the creditors come calling.

      1. Do you honestly think Musk neglected to include the ground terminals? You don’t: 1) become a BILLIONAIRE, and 2) make it in to space, launching payloads for the US government, 3) deploy your own satellite internet network, and “forget” to have a plan ready to supply ground terminals to the world.

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