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.

Everything We Know About SpaceX’s Starlink Network

When it comes to SpaceX, or perhaps more accurately its somewhat eccentric founder and CEO Elon Musk, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. For as many incredible successes SpaceX has had, there’s an equal number of projects or ideas which get quietly delayed or shelved entirely once it becomes clear the technical challenges are greater than anticipated. There’s also Elon’s particular brand of humor to contend with; most people assumed his claim that the first Falcon Heavy payload would be his own personal Tesla Roadster was a joke until he Tweeted the first shots of it being installed inside the rocket’s fairing.

So a few years ago when Elon first mentioned Starlink, SpaceX’s plan for providing worldwide high-speed Internet access via a mega-constellation of as many as 12,000 individual satellites, it’s no surprise that many met the claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. The profitability of Starlink was intrinsically linked to SpaceX’s ability to substantially lower the cost of getting to orbit through reusable launch vehicles, a capability the company had yet to successfully demonstrate. It seemed like a classic cart before the horse scenario.

But today, not only has SpaceX begun regularly reusing the latest version of their Falcon 9 rocket, but Starlink satellites will soon be in orbit around the Earth. They’re early prototypes that aren’t as capable as the final production versions, and with only 60 of them on the first launch it’s still a far cry from thousands of satellites which would be required for the system to reach operational status, but there’s no question they’re real.

During a media call on May 15th, Elon Musk let slip more technical information about the Starlink satellites than we’ve ever had before, giving us the first solid details on the satellites themselves, what the company’s goals are, and even a rough idea when the network might become operational.

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It’s The Web, Basically

If you are of a certain age, you probably learned to program in Basic. Even if you aren’t, a lot of microcontroller hobbyists got started on the Basic Stamp, and there are plenty of other places where to venerable language still hides out. But if you want to write cool browser applications, you have to write JavaScript, right? Google will now let you code your web pages in Basic. Known as WWWBasic, this is — of course — a Javascript hack that you can load remotely into a web page and then have your page use Basic for customization. You can even import the thing into Node.js and use Basic inside your JavaScript, although it is hard to think of why you’d want to.

According to the project’s documentation — which is pretty sparse so far, we’re afraid — the Basic program is compiled into JavaScript on page load. There are a few examples, so you can generally pick up what’s available to use. There are graphics, the ability to read a keyboard key, and a way to handle the mouse.

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Spanning The Tree : Dr Radia Perlman & Untangling Networks

As computer networks get bigger, it becomes increasingly hard to keep track of the flow of data over this network. How do you route data, making sure that the data is spread to all parts of the network? You use an algorithm called the spanning tree protocol — just one of the contributions to computer science of a remarkable engineer, Dr. Radia Perlman. But before she created this fundamental Internet protocol, she also worked on LOGO, the first programming language for children, creating a dialect for toddlers.

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Becoming Your Own ISP, Just For Fun

When moving into a new house, it’s important to arrange for the connection of basic utilities. Electricity, water, and gas are simple enough, and then it’s generally fairly easy to set up a connection to an ISP for your internet connection. A router plugs into a phone line, or maybe a fiber connection and lovely packets start flowing out of the wall. But if you’re connected to the internet through an ISP, how is the ISP connected? [Kenneth] answers this in the form of an amusing tale.

It was during the purchase of data centre rack space that [Kenneth]’s challenge was laid down by a friend. Rather then simply rely on the connection provided by the data centre, they would instead rely on forging their own connection to the ‘net, essentially becoming their own Internet Service Provider.

This is known as creating an Autonomous System. To do this involves several challenges, the first of which is understanding just how things work at this level of networking. [Kenneth] explains the vagaries of the Border Gateway Protocol, and why its neccessary to secure your own address space. There’s also an amusing discussion on the routing hardware required for such a feat and why [Kenneth]’s setup may fall over within the next two years or so.

It’s not for the faint hearted, and takes a fair bit of paperwork, but [Kenneth] has provided an excellent guide to the process if you really, really just need to own your own corner of the internet. That said, there are other networking tricks to cut your teeth on if you’d like a simpler challenge, like tunneling IP over ICMP.


Untether From Your Location With A VPN

By now, most of us know the perks of using a VPN: they make private one’s online activity (at least from your ISP’s point of view, probably), and they can also make it appear as if you are in a different locale than you physically are. This is especially important for trying to watch events such as the Olympics which might air different things at different times in different countries. It’s also starting to be an issue with services like Netflix which allow content in some areas but not others.

While VPNs can help solve this problem, it can be tedious to set them up for specific purposes like this if you have to do it often. Luckily, [clashtherage] has created a router with a Raspberry Pi that takes care of all of the complicated VPN routing automatically. In much the same way that another RPi router we’ve seen eliminates ads from all of your internet traffic, this one takes all of your traffic and sends it to a locale of your choosing. (In theory one could use both at the same time.)

Obviously this creates issues for Netflix as a company, and indeed a number of services (like craigslist, for example) are starting to block access to their sites if they detect that a VPN is being used. Of course, this only leads to an arms race of VPNs being blocked, and them finding ways around the obstacles, and on and on. If only IPv6 was finally implemented, we might have a solution for all of these issues.

Long Range Wireless Internet

While most of you reading this have broadband in your home, there are still vast areas with little access to the Internet. Ham radio operator [emmynet] found himself in just such a situation recently, and needed to get a wireless connection over 1 km from his home. WiFi wouldn’t get the job done, so he turned to a 433 MHz serial link instead. (Alternate link)

[emmynet] used an inexpensive telemetry kit that operates in a frequency that travels long distances much more easily than WiFi can travel. The key here isn’t in the hardware, however, but in the software. He went old-school, implemending peer-to-peer TCP/IP connection using SLIP — serial line Internet protocol. All of the commands to set up the link are available on his project page. With higher gain antennas than came with the telemetry kit, a range much greater than 1 km could be achieved as well.

[Editor’s note: This is how we all got Internet, over phone lines, back in the early Nineties. Also, you kids get off my lawn! But also, seriously, SLIP is a good tool to have in your toolbox, especially for low-power devices where WiFi would burn up your batteries.]

While it didn’t suit [emmynet]’s needs, it is possible to achieve extremely long range with WiFi itself. However this generally requires directional antennas with very high gain and might not be as reliable as a lower-frequency connection. On the other hand, a WiFi link will (in theory) get a greater throughput, so it all depends on what your needs are. Also, be aware that using these frequencies outside of their intended use might require an amateur radio license.

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