Locally Run Wireless Network Provides High-Speed Service To Low-Income Residents

Mar 30, 2017

For many Vermonters, a broadband connection to the internet is an essential facet of 21st century life, and yet there are some who can't afford it. A group in Newport is organizing a wireless network that will offer high-speed internet access at a price that low-income residents of the city can afford.

The Newport Wireless Mesh project aims to spread internet in the city's oldest neighborhood where nearly half of the kids live below the poverty line.

Diane Peel is a retired nurse who's helping to organize the Newport Wireless Mesh. She says that a lot of the low-income families there have internet on their smartphones, but not in their homes.

"In this day and age, if you can't stay connected, then you're just going to lose out," Peel says. "And if the kids are growing up in families that the only access to the internet they ever see their parents doing is scrolling up and down Facebook on their phone, that is not preparing them to be adults in the society we have where they're going to go to an office somewhere, hopefully, and get a decent job and have to do more complicated things."

Peel says that low-income families need internet access at home to apply for jobs or college and for online learning. After knocking on basically every door in the downtown Newport neighborhood, Peel is convinced that nearly one-fourth of the households can't afford home internet service.

The Newport Wireless Mesh aims to serve them by using wi-fi routers to spread internet access. In February, the mesh completed a two-year pilot project.

"In this day and age, if you can't stay connected, then you're just going to lose out." — Diane Peel, Newport Wireless Mesh

"When the word got out that we were doing the pilot project," Peel explains, "they were walking in here. Mothers with children in school said, 'I heard you have internet available. My son or daughter needs the internet for school and we can't afford it.' I would judge from that there is a need out there because it got them out of their apartment to walk down to this place and come in and ask about it, which is something that just doesn't happen otherwise."

Michelle Rossi is a single mother of two.

Diane Peel, seen here, is a retired nurse who has helped to organize the Newport Wireless Mesh. While mobile access is available, Peel says kids should have the opportunity to do more online.
Credit Jon Kalish / VPR

"This wireless mesh project has allowed me to have internet service that I would not otherwise been able to have and, actually, I've been in my residence now for five years," she says.

Rossi's son is done with school and though her daughter in second grade doesn't need the internet yet for homework, Rossi says that will change in a few years.

"We're still feeling out how the weather affects it and the number of devices in the house that are trying to feed from it," says Rossi. "My son's got a PlayStation and she plays on the tablet, but we haven't had too many hiccups."

The pilot project involved less than a dozen households and was done under the radar and without the cooperation of Newport's landlords, so the routers were not placed in optimal locations.

In mesh networks routers communicate with each other and a single router can provide internet access to several households. Diane Peel showed me a router that looked like a square white hockey puck.

"This wireless mesh project has allowed me to have internet service that I would not otherwise been able to have." — Michelle Rossi, Newport Wireless Mesh user

"This is a MetaMesh router. You can set it up just on the ledge of your window," Peel explains."This one has been communicating with one that's a block and a half up there in the third story of a window, actually having to go through the corner of this brick building."

The MetaMesh router Peel is pointing out came from a company that was started in Pittsburgh by someone at that city's wireless mesh network.

Adam Longwill is one of the founders of PittMesh, which has been up and running since 2013.

A router sits inside a Tupperware container atop a sign in Newport.

"The equipment we install is really inexpensive by design so we can easily swap it out if it fails," Longwill says. "And we keep it small so that it's pretty discreet and you have a collection of these in about 200 feet of each other. And they start to find each other and communicate; and they all know where each other is and they all know who is in the network and can pass traffic back and forth and ultimately to the internet."

PittMesh has 60 routers or nodes around the city. The Newport Wireless Mesh will have just six routers when it formally launches this summer, all placed on top of participating buildings.

"This is a neighborhood where it's a pain in the neck to have to deal with a lower-income population that ... if we assume that responsibility, we're taking a lot of that headache away from them." — Diane Peel, Newport Wireless Mesh

Diane Peel expects the Newport Wireless Mesh to serve about 80 families in a roughly nine square-block area. It's a small segment of the market that she says the established internet service providers won't miss.

"This is a neighborhood where it's a pain in the neck to have to deal with a lower-income population that doesn't pay their bills necessarily and may run up a big bill, you know," says Peel. "They're moving a lot, so you're always connecting and disconnecting. So, if we assume that responsibility, we're taking a lot of that headache away from them."

The Newport Wireless Mesh expects to run its network on a high-speed internet connection delivered via fiber optic cable. The mesh needs to raise at least $15,000 to get up and running in its first year.

Diane Peel holds one of the routers used in the Newport Wireless Mesh.
Credit Jon Kalish / VPR

The goal is to charge low-income Vermonters $15 a month for the service. But Peel says some will pay nothing and others will pay more.

"We do have some people in this neighborhood who are actually somewhat better off and are very civic-minded. I'm hoping that they're going to be willing to help support the mesh and kick in a little bit more," she says.

Comcast provides inexpensive internet access to low-income households in federally-subsidized housing and families with children in a school lunch program. Its "Internet Essentials" program has connected 1,300 Vermont households since it began in 2011. However, these low-income families get less than half the speed of the company's entry-level internet service.

One mesh network activist described that service as “glorified dial-up” and described the slower speed as “an inconvenience foisted on the poor for being poor.”