Toby Bloch doesn’t look like your average internet installation technician. Instead of a uniform with a corporate logo embroidered on it, he wears worn-in jeans and a thick canvas jacket. Instead of a van, he drives a Subaru — the back of which is stuffed to the gills with a disorganized pile of hand tools, cables, and odd electronic devices with antennas sticking out of them. And unlike most technicians, he isn’t going to earn a dime for the appointment he’s headed to in Brooklyn.
But oddly enough, that’s precisely the point. Bloch doesn’t operate like a normal internet install tech because he isn’t one. He doesn’t work for Comcast or Spectrum or Verizon or any other large internet service provider (ISP). He’s a volunteer at NYC Mesh: A guerrilla internet provider that helps residents get online without paying a monthly fee to the aforementioned telecom companies.
The group has been making waves in New York City by building up its DIY broadband network over the past few years — but alternative internet access isn’t the only thing NYC Mesh is building. As it spreads across the city, node by node, it’s also building a blueprint — one that other communities across the country can follow as they stand up to monopolistic ISPs.
“It’s been really eye-opening to me just how poorly Verizon and Spectrum run their networks in terms of the bandwidth that they’re able to provide to their customers,” Bloch tells Digital Trends.
Internet connectivity in the United States is lackluster at best. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 19 million Americans are without access to reliable internet. Just to put that in context, that’s 6% of the entire country’s population and approximately the population of New York State, the nation’s fourth-most populous, in its entirety.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, internet speeds plummeted as more people worked from home. If you felt like your internet speeds tanked during the pandemic, you’re not imagining things. In New York, speeds dropped by 24%.
Yet even with stagnant or declining speeds, broadband prices have surged in recent years. According to a 2020 report from New America, the average price for internet plans was more than $62/month nationally. In places like Atlanta, it’s significantly higher — more than $100 per month on average.
What’s behind these high prices? It’s likely a lack of competition. Most of the internet services across the U.S. are controlled by just a handful of large companies. According to a 2020 report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, almost 50 million people only have access to broadband internet through a single provider. An additional 47 million only have access through either Comcast or Charter.
In New York, that problem is amplified even further. In 2008, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg brokered a deal with Verizon that was supposed to revolutionize internet access in America’s largest city. The deal allowed the provider to take on Time Warner’s local monopoly and effectively ended it. But adding another ISP to the mix didn’t fix all the city’s problems. To this day, 20% of New Yorkers still don’t have internet access in their homes.
Now New Yorkers are fed up — and that’s precisely where NYC Mesh comes in.
So how exactly does one sign up for guerrilla broadband service and get it installed? Believe it or not, it’s surprisingly simple. When a customer reaches out to NYC Mesh, a request goes out to a Slack channel that houses a network of volunteer technicians. The entire operation is decentralized.
“Mesh is a really open grassroots democratic organization. I think that’s one of the things that really draws me to it,” Bloch said adding, “It’s a very flat organization. By design, it’s a bunch of volunteers, there’s no full-time staff or paid staff.”
Once a volunteer tech responds, they ask the potential customer to provide some panorama pictures on their rooftop so Mesh volunteers can see if the potential member could have access to the network. If approved, the new member would have a wireless node on their rooftop. That node will connect to a neighboring node on another building.
Ultimately, all of these nodes connect back to a handful of primary exchange points called “supernodes,” which provide direct access to the internet — all without the need for any big internet providers that act as middlemen. The only limitation, really, is that a customer must be within range of a node in order for this to work.
With this technology, Mesh is able to deliver reliable and cheaper internet access to much of the city. After installation, members pay what they can — although it’s suggested they pay somewhere between $20 to $60 a month. The group relies completely on donations.
NYC Mesh has grown considerably in the past few years, but Bloch is quick to point out that what the organization is doing in New York is just one small part of the bigger picture. Ultimately, Mesh wants to open up the floodgates and make these kinds of homegrown internet techniques more accessible to the masses. The group doesn’t want to be a gatekeeper.
“What we’re doing is really democratizing this technology and democratizing the knowledge,” Bloch said, adding, “we’re propagating it and getting it out into the hands of as many people as possible.”
Fortunately, they’ve got some help. While Mesh is one of the larger alternative ISPs in the country, it’s certainly not the only one out there. NYC is also home to a separate community broadband cooperative called People’s Choice, while a similar organization called Starry serves the residents of Boston.
So does this DIY internet uprising have what it takes to go nationwide?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is somewhat murky. Given the regulatory landscape, it’s much easier for NYC Mesh to put pressure on the big telecom power players than it is for similar organizations in other parts of the country. Several states — including Texas, Minnesota, and Washington state — have regulatory barriers that either incentivize against or outright ban community-based Wi-Fi networks.
There was even a push at the federal level in 2021 to bar them altogether. That was introduced by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), both of which serve on the House Commerce Committee and Subcommittee for Communications and Technology.
Consequently, McMorris Rogers has a huge conflict of interest. She has already received political donations from America’s biggest telecom companies for her reelection campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, through their assorted PACS, Verizon Communications donated a combined $5,000, Comcast gave $10,000 and Charter gave $5,000 ahead of her 2022 primary race.
Alongside the legal challenges from the federal level, homegrown internet success requires access to high points, poles, and rooftops of apartment buildings in order to build a network of nodes. That makes a more widespread movement more of an uphill battle, as not every town in the U.S. is as populous or full of high-rise buildings as NYC. Establishing a community-run mesh network in a flatter, more sprawling suburb would be tricky.
Even so, there’s still good reason to be hopeful that NYC Mesh’s methods might kick off a trend.
While they may not work everywhere, organizations like Mesh could collectively put enough pressure on telecom giants in major metropolitan areas that large ISPs like Comcast and Verizon might be forced to respond. And no matter how that plays out, whether that means beefing up their own coverage or lowering prices to stay competitive, the outcome will ultimately be the same for consumers: Cheaper, more accessible, more reliable internet.