Global Scan, Local Lessons
Many mesh networks and other decentralised infrastructure have grown from the need for radical resistance and care; serving as a way to make explicit the social fabric of a place and its people, or the lack thereof, that connects neighbours, friends and peers.
During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Red Hook neighbourhood of New York City was dealt with some of the worst of the storm. However, even through gale-force winds and tidal surge, the recently installed mesh network held its ground, allowing the neighbourhood's residents and emergency responders to remain connected during the aftermath; enabling them to rebuild, coordinate resources and reach the outside world again. While 95% of the city had power restored by two weeks after the storm, it took 29 days for Red Hook’s utilities to be back online. Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves, together. There’s a resilience to this distributed technological infrastructure that enables and empowers our own in the face of disaster.
In 2022, the internet was deliberately shut down 187 times across 35 countries. In areas where governments and other authorities employ this form of control, protestors often use mobile phone-enabled mesh networks to stay in contact with each other. While these mesh networks cannot provide internet access or global reach, they are often the only options available during these times for people to communicate. As more users from different areas join the mesh, the further and faster a message can travel through the user network. Sometimes we don’t need to tell the whole world what is happening, but we do need to tell our neighbours.
In Catalonia, Spain, a region with a strong solidarity economy and collectivist traditions formed from a long history of labour and cooperative movements, a community-owned mesh network has grown to span 37,000 active nodes across the country and beyond through a 71,000 km network of wireless links. Small can be very powerful; sometimes you want to grow out, not up.
Though these are just a few brief examples of the potentials and new realities that community mesh networks enable, one thing is clear: as much as mesh networks require a re-designing of our technology stack, they also support the emergence of new social protocols and connections. As University of Toronto Physicist, Ursula M. Franklin, explains in The Real World of Technology (1989) lecture series, “the struggle to understand and steer the interaction between the bitsphere and the biosphere is the struggle for community in the broadest ecological context.”
In the spirit of building upon existing practices and knowledge, we sat down with contributors and stewards of mesh networks, both existing and dissolved, global and regional, to explore the intersection of bits and bytes, with that which makes us human. Below are some lessons and pieces of wisdom we’ve been gifted by the global network that have informed our own approach to Stolon Mesh.
By Rithikha Rajamohan at V6A Collaborative
Form Follows function:
Community-mesh networks can take on many different forms, including informal volunteer groups, nonprofits, cooperatives and for-profit companies. Figure out what you want to achieve with your mesh’s technical and social infrastructure; not all mesh networks need to compete with commercial ISP’s, some act as last mile providers, such as Bring the Web in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, others like Toronto Mesh, aim to focus on building a community around the possibilities of this technology by increasing literacy and opportunities to meet collaborators. Others yet, such as NYC Mesh, are incorporated as a non-profit, while keeping external reliance on business models and grant funding low, and instead turning to a mutual aid network of volunteers to keep their city-wide mesh network running. Start by understanding your group’s current and long-term goals within the context of the area you’d like to work in. There are no wrong answers, but form does follow function; start by asking what the community needs or could benefit from, and see how you can help.
Long Term Sustainability:
Most successful mesh networks have achieved financial sustainability. For many, this looks like minimising reliance on grants for long-term and core operations, and instead using external funding for covering large, one-time costs, such as for mesh infrastructure and annual costs to keep the network running. What would be your operational costs by month and by year, that you would need to cover? What would you need to make per user to support the network through, for example, a monthly minimum donation that all users should be able to pay. If you plan the areas you operate in properly, you’ll likely find some are able to pay more than a monthly minimum, which enables others to pay under that amount or opt-out if needed.
Starting off the mesh network in higher-income neighbourhoods is a good initial approach that allows you to take advantage of the mesh’s ability to redistribute power across the network. While your goal may be to create a mesh network that serves those experiencing digital gentrification or without already good internet infrastructure, this can be an unnecessary uphill battle. By starting off in areas, particularly mixed-income neighbourhoods, with good existing internet connectivity and people who can pay a higher monthly donation, it becomes easier to expand the mesh into areas with less connectivity options. Because of its distributed, decentralised nature, the whole mesh network benefits when strong nodes join in, while weaker nodes are able to use this redundancy in the network to get good quality service and contribute to the network’s expansion. By diversifying your users, the whole network benefits; a network exists to redistribute resources and power, use its unique structure to empower these flows.
Work in Public:
Start with wifi hotspots or local area networks in public areas and/or buildings, such as libraries, community gardens and co-ops. Taking this public-first approach serves a few functions: first, it helps get the word out organically and locally, and secondly, it builds trust within a community by showing instead of telling. In many cities, public wifi is an unmet civic need that many residents would appreciate having.
More than Just Internet:
As it is now, the apps we currently use are built on centralized technology architectures. If I want to send a message to you, it goes off to a server located somewhere else, often nowhere near where the message’s origin, before that server sends the message back to the recipient. On the other hand, decentralized network architecture systems, like mesh networks, operate differently. Your peers can send their messages directly to you or via other users in the network, rather than it being sent to a larger intermediary who stores your data and can intercept these interactions if they want to. This Peer-to-Peer (P2P) approach is known for its robustness, as the failure of one peer does not disrupt the entire network. Mesh networks, in addition to addressing digital gentrification and making internet access more accessible, also provide the base infrastructure for a whole new class of more resilient, efficient and community-powered apps that support new social relations to run on.
Partnering with smaller internet service providers can be especially useful, as they often are looking for ways to give back to their community and use this aspect of their work as a marketing differentiator from larger commercial companies. Some may commit to helping with larger installations (e.g. apartment buildings) and in exchange for free/cheaper services and infrastructure costs, you would be able to help them reach new clients, while also expanding the mesh network. Larger installations for the mesh network are often more-cost and time effective to pursue and have larger impact. Real estate companies, as well as building and housing communities with an aligned missions, such as cooperatives, would also be good partners.
Keeping The Lights On:
A strong technical community is needed to get a mesh network off the ground, however the community activators, connectors and translators are crucial to expanding the mesh network. To keep the lights on, you need a community who enjoys and understand the technical back-end and its possibilities, as well as people who do the glue-work that creating and sustaining a community requires. The difference between shallow and deep work lies in community-building.
Thank you to the following organizations and individuals for sharing their
journey in building and sustaining community mesh networks of all shapes
and sizes with us:
Seattle Community Network — Esther Jang
Bring The Web — Dana Ralutz, Colby Hollabaugh, Ben Bondy, Anthony Stewart
Coolab - Tanya Silva
Toronto Mesh/Hypha Worker Co-operative - Benedict Lau
Newport Wireless Mesh — Diane Peel
Philly Community Wireless — Alex Wermer-Colan
Personal Telco Project — Russell Senior
Bring The Web — Dana Ralutz, Colby Hollabaugh, Ben Bondy, Anthony Stewart
Mass Mesh — Stephen Smith
Janastu COW Mesh/Independent Consultants — Sarbani Belur, Amudhan Manivasagam
The Association for Progressive Communications/Alter Mundi — Nico Pace