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.

Manhole Covers Hide Antennas

5G is gearing up to be the most extensive implementation of mesh networking ever, and that could mean antennas will not need to broadcast for miles, just far enough to reach some devices. That unsightly cell infrastructure stuck on water towers and church steeples could soon be hidden under low-profile hunks of metal we are already used to seeing; manhole covers. This makes sense because 5G’s millimeter radio waves are more or less line-of-sight, and cell users probably wouldn’t want to lose connectivity every time they walk behind a building.

At the moment, Vodafone in the UK is testing similar 4G antennas and reaching 195 megabits/sec download speeds. Each antenna covers a 200-meter radius and uses a fiber network because, courtesy of existing underground infrastructure. There is some signal loss from transmitting and receiving beneath a slab of metal, but that will be taken into account when designing the network. The inevitable shift to 5G will then be a relatively straightforward matter of lifting the old antennas out and laying the new hardware inside, requiring only a worker and a van instead of a construction crew.

We want to help you find all the hidden cell phone antennas and pick your own cell module.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

OpenThread, A Solution To The WiFi Of Things

The term ‘Internet of Things’ was coined in 1999, long before every laptop had WiFi and every Starbucks provided Internet for the latte-sucking masses. Over time, the Internet of Things meant all these devices would connect over WiFi. Why, no one has any idea. WiFi is terrible for a network of Things – it requires too much power, the range isn’t great, it’s beyond overkill, and there’s already too many machines and routers on WiFi networks, anyway.

There have been a number of solutions to this problem of a WiFi of Things over the years, but none have caught on. Now, finally, there may be a solution. Nest, in cooperation with ARM, Atmel, dialog, Qualcomm, and TI have released OpenThread, an Open Source implementation of the Thread networking protocol.

The physical layer for OpenThread is 802.15.4, the same layer ZigBee is based on. Unlike ZigBee, the fourth, fifth, and sixth layers of OpenThread look much more like the rest of the Internet. OpenThread featuresĀ IPv6 and 6LoWPAN, true mesh networking, and requires only a software update to existing 802.15.4 radios.

OpenThread is OS and platform agnostic, and interfacing different radios should be relatively easy with an abstraction layer. Radios and networking were always the problem with the Internet of Things, and with OpenThread – and especially the companies supporting it – these problems might not be much longer.

Pinoccio: Mesh All The (Internet Of) Things

PinnThere’s a problem with products geared towards building the Internet of Things. Everyone building hardware needs investors, and thus some way to monetize their platform. This means all your data is pushed to ‘the cloud’, i.e. a server you don’t own. This is obviously not ideal for the Hackaday crowd. Yes, IoT can be done with a few cheap radios and a hacked router, but then you don’t get all the cool features of a real Things project – mesh networking and a well designed network. Pinoccio is the first Thing we’ve seen that puts a proper mesh network together with a server you can own. The Pinoccio team were kind enough to let us drop in while we were in Rock City last weekend, and we were able to get the scoop on these tiny boards from [Sally] and [Eric], along with a really cool demo of what they can do.

The hardware on the Pinoccio is basically an Arduino Mega with a LiPo battery and an 802.15.4 radio provided by anĀ ATmega256RFR2. The base board – technically called a ‘field scout’ – can be equipped with a WiFi backpack that serves as a bridge for the WiFi network. It’s a pretty clever solution to putting a whole lot of Things on a network, without having all the Things directly connected to the Internet.

Programming these scouts can be done through Arduino, of course, but the folks at Pinoccio also came up with something called ScoutScript that allows you to send commands directly to any or all of the scouts on the mesh network. There’s a neat web-based GUI called HQ that allows you to command, control, and query all the little nodules remotely as well.

In the video below, [Sally] goes over the basic functions of the hardware and what it’s capable of. [Eric] was in Reno when we visited, but he was kind enough to get on a video chat and show off what a network of Pinoccios are capable of by emblazoning their web page with Hackaday logos whenever he presses a button.

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