Photo by Ole Skaar for Curiousmatic.

Meet The Young Techies Who Want To Change The Way NYC Connects To The Internet

In the cluttered backroom of a Lower East Side hacker space, a group of young tech enthusiasts meet weekly to discuss their shared goal: creating a city-wide network operated by the people.

Jokingly dubbed an “underground resistance” at a recent meeting (they used to meet in the basement of a nearby cafe), the group is organized around the subreddit r/nycmeshnet.

They’re united by a dissatisfaction with monolithic ISPs and overreaching government programs, and to avoid that, they want to set up a decentralized wireless network called a meshnet, which ideally could replace landlines owned by cable companies.

Basically, a meshnet (which we explained here) is a network where each device connected to it, called a “node,” both downloads and transmits data along to other peers. Using fairly simple equipment, a community of people running such nodes could set up and administer their very own wireless, encrypted, Web-like network.

“It essentially allows us to run the Internet by ourselves,” says Kurt Snieck, 23, an electric engineer involved in the project.

There is no single leader of NYC Meshnet, which meets Tuesday nights at xCubicle, but acting as an organizer at a recent meeting is Peter Valdez, a 22-year-old computer science student at Hunter College.

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Peter Valdez, 22, acts as an organizer for nycmeshnet.

He got involved after discovering the subreddit and getting in touch with Snieck, who lived a mile away on the Lower East Side. Soon after, they installed the requisite software and set up their very own mesh network via special antennae.

Though Snieck has since moved to Harlem, too far away to keep the connection going, they used the reddit and an IRC channel to organize the meetups, which have occurred every Sunday since February 9. Their goal is to build a community, a place to throw ideas around.

“No matter how much you want a mesh local started by yourself, it’s not gonna happen, so if you want to start moving somewhere with a meshnet, you’re gonna have to start gathering people,” Valdez says. “I think we’re in a pretty unique place, New York City is already so dense, so if a mesh network is gonna work, this is one of the best bets.”

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Kurt Snieck, 23, works as an audio engineer but says he has taken an interest in radio operation, a crucial skill for setting up a meshnet.

The reddit thread goes even further back. It was created in 2012, attracting a small community. Among that community was 13-year-old Mark Blum, a self-taught coder who had been involved with Project Meshnet, a larger initiative .

Conceived in 2011, Project Meshnet is a community organized around the subreddit r/darknetplan, which is aimed at “organizing a decentralized alternative to traditional ISP’s.”

It’s far from the only meshnet community, however: In both Seattle and Berlin, there are meshnets operating throughout the cities, and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana had a campus-wide meshnet running since at least 2007 (pdf).

In fact there’s a whole Wikipedia page listing meshnets all around the world (although they’re not all in operation).

The idea has been around for decades, ever since DARPA research (pdf) in the ’70s. As wireless hardware has become ubiquitous and interest in open and decentralized standards has increased, the concept has gained traction online.

That’s how Blum discovered it, and became involved with creating services for Project Meshnet. He got too busy to organize meetups, however – he had to start high school. Now, he’s 16, a sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science, and became involved again after Valdez and Snieck started hosting the meetups.

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A computer running CJDNS, the network routing software used by nycmeshnet.

Regularly drawing 10-15 people, the meetings consist of discussions on what kind of hardware is best suited for meshing, the legalities of running such a network, and what kind of services could be run on it.

Right now, there is no mesh network running in New York City. But the group is planning field tests, using nanostations that can broadcast data over longer distances, and CJDNS, a traffic routing software that distributes and encrypts data packages dynamically across a network.

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A Ubiquiti Networks nanostation, which can send Wi-Fi signals over long distances.

This allows any such setup to work with only a few nodes within reach of each other, as traffic is automatically re-routed if a node is down. It also means there is no need, or even possibility, of central control.

Because of this, meshnets could theoretically cut ISPs out of the equation and allow competition into the last-mile connection market.

Currently, companies such as Intermap sell Internet access to cable providers such as Comcast or Time-Warner, who own the “last mile” cable that connect to people’s houses. These companies essentially have a monopoly on the data coming through those cables.

With a meshnet, however, anyone on that wireless network could decide to share their Internet connection, either for free or for a price. The decentralized nature of it means that anyone on the network would be free to do what they want with their Internet connection.

Of course, this raises the question of legality – one which the group regularly discusses.

“Done in the right way it’s legal. And that’s the thing. If you you do it the wrong way, it’s very much illegal,” Valdez says. “And we don’t wanna get stopped prematurely. We don’t wanna cross Time-Warner, especially these days. We don’t wanna step on somebody’s toes that we’re not ready to take on yet.”

Residential contracts, such as Time-Warner’s residential user agreement (pdf), usually specify that the connection can’t be shared outside one’s premises. A determined organization, however, could invest in a last-mile cable lease, essentially becoming an ISP to customers on the mesh. There could even be Internet coops, Snieck says, where each member would own Internet access or even pay as they go.

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But getting to that point will require an already functioning meshnet, which require a sufficient amount of people running nodes that can receive and send data. To do so, the group is considering what kind of services can be run on the meshnet to attract new users, before Internet sharing becomes viable.

“[It’s] something we’ve talked about a lot with the chicken-and-egg problem: we could make this meshnet but it would only work if there’s a reason for people to be there,” says Tyler Isaacson, 23, a camera technician involved with the project. “But we don’t know, do we need the services first, or do we need to have the infrastructure first? And we kind of need to have them both at the same time.”

Some ideas that have been suggested are Bitcoin services, a copy of the English Wikipedia, Reddit and Twitter clones. There could also be video and music sharing, or even local blogs that are only accessible on the meshnet, Isaacson says.

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Valdez with a laptop and a Raspberry Pi, a barebones computer that the group uses to run the meshnet routing software.

Another challenge for the meshnet is simply the technology involved. For everything to work, all users obviously need to have the hardware capable of sending and receiving the software, as well as the requisite software.

“One of the bigger things is that there are lots of configuration and a lot of overhead in setting up a thing like this, technically, and we’re trying to eliminate that,” Valdez says.

Ideally, he says, people could buy a kit for $100, set up a router in their window, and be on the mesh network. Whether that will be the nanostations that they’re currently testing, or something completely different, remains to be seen. Nor is the group trying to be held up by the legal concerns. The focus, Valdez says, is simply spreading the word about the benefits of meshnets.

“The best case scenario is, we can show that this works. And if we ended up getting taken down by some corporation or it’s in the interest of someone to take us down, if the idea is out there and people realize it’s possible, then perhaps that’s all it takes. … It’s in the hive mind of the people.”

Photos by Ole Skaar for Curiousmatic. 

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Ole Skaar