Last week, the Federal Communications Commission went ahead with its deeply unpopular plan to end net neutrality protections, giving internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast unprecedented control of our experience online. But what if you and your community could become your own internet service provider?

Congress can still reject the FCC’s decision, though at least one proposed bill suggests there’s reason not to be overly optimistic they will save the day. Either way, maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the internet — and with big ISPs that facilitate our access to the web.

Instead of depending on monopolistic corporations, internet users can take back the net by building their own community-supported internet networks. Mesh networks can help.

Mesh wireless antenna
A mesh wireless antenna in Chinatown, New York. 

What is a mesh network?

When we access the internet via an ISP, we are likely connecting via broadband, which is literally a giant cable that connects our ISP to top-level internet exchanges. In other words, the ISP acts as the central gatekeeper that ultimately controls our point of online access.

Mesh networks, on the other hand, connect devices directly to each other. Rather than going through a central point, mesh networks allow for how we connect to automatically reconfigure according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth and storage.

Since they are decentralized, the only way to shut down or otherwise disrupt a mesh network is to shut down every node in the network. This makes them much more resilient to interference or other disturbances.

In more practical terms, by setting up specially configured wireless routers (known as “nodes”) that connect to other configured wireless routers, mesh networks allow local users to create a network that is physically distinct from the internet. (Although it can connect to the internet, it can also exist as its own local network.)Then, antennas installed on the outside of buildings connect to each other, forming a mesh network.

Does this exist in the real world?

A map of NYC Mesh's current nodes. Active nodes are in red, and lines show supernode connections.

Mesh wireless networks have already been deployed across the world, from New York’s NYC Mesh, Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative to eastern Afghanistan’s FabFi — though that was eventually shut down under pressure from local telecoms — to rural communities in South Africa.

One of the most sophisticated mesh wireless networks is Guifi.net, a community network in Spain that has grown from a single node in 2004 to more than 30,000 in 2016. It has spawned the creation of local ISPs that connect its users to fiber Internet.

In the short time since the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, there have already been a number of new mesh internet projects popping up, including Honolulu Mesh in Hawaii, while a group in Los Angeles just announced its first meet-up to begin planning.

Other mesh wireless networks have been temporary, serving as a backup source of internet when the normal networks were knocked down. After Hurricane Sandy, when Internet and cell phone networks were knocked out in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, a mesh wireless network became the backbone of communication for the mostly low-income community. FEMA ended up installing a satellite internet connection at the community center, which then spread the internet via the mesh.

How to Make Your Own

How a mesh wireless network that connects to the Internet would look like

Several organizations offer guides and free resources to create your own mesh wireless networks.

Commotion Wireless, a project from the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute provides the most comprehensive guide to getting started, as well as free downloads of its firmware for routers, phones, and computers.

NYC Mesh also has a guide that includes everything from how to get the entire community involved and mobilized to the specifics of the hardware required.

Meanwhile, LibreMesh, started in 2013, provides another firmware option for creating a mesh wireless network. Several large mesh networks are built on top of LibreMesh, including Spain’s Guifi.net, but requires a little more understanding of networking set-up.

Of course, the easiest thing to do is to join an existing network, like NYC Mesh, which sells configured routers at its monthly meet-ups.

Why aren’t they everywhere then?

Despite their many benefits, mesh networks are still niche. This is partly because connecting to a mesh network is still far more difficult than just signing up for Internet service via an ISP and paying a monthly Internet bill.

Besides, mesh wireless “occupies a place in the public imagination that may not always sync up with the boring reality,” Dan Phiffer, a prominent coder and free Internet advocate that built a darknet for Occupy Wall Street, tells Inverse in an email. He adds there are several components to mesh that get conflated, but that “the mesh technology [which allows for devices to connect to each other] and the peer-to-peer community possibilities can be understood separately.” Additionally, it is not either of these capabilities alone that allows for users to connect to the Internet.

Most users on mesh Internet still depend on a traditional ISP to connect to the web, either via their own subscriptions — or a connection that is shared by another node. But decentralization, which makes mesh more resilient to interference, also means that connecting to the Internet through the many “hops” of mesh is slow. The real solution is combining mesh technology with direct access to an Internet exchange.

But this is no easy task. NYC Mesh volunteer Brian Hall tells Inverse the organization only launched its first supernode in 2016, after over a year of negotiations. The organization found a fiscal sponsor to accept grants and donations, and negotiated for a donated internet exchange connection, “transit”, as well as Internet bandwidth.

Mesh networks can provide high internet speeds -- if it's also able to access an internet exchange. 

Still, the costs are not insignificant. “Each supernode costs about $5,000 to install and $1,000 per month to maintain,” Hall tells Inverse.

But all of this has paid off. Today, the downtown Manhattan supernode has 15 buildings connected directly to it, allowing them to access the Internet via super high speeds — without ISPs. They’re hoping to keep Internet access free through a mixture of grants, donations, and subscriptions. “Individual donations are almost covering costs at the moment,” Hall says.

Mesh wireless technology has been around for a while, and so has the hype around its potential. But the end of net neutrality has created a greater sense of urgency.

“This year’s FCC vote has felt like there’s way more at stake,” says Dan Phiffer. “The political landscape has shifted so dramatically this year.”

And this has definitely increased the amount of interest in mesh networking. NYC Mesh received a record level of join requests since the repeal of net neutrality, while new projects such as those in Honolulu and LA are also starting, as a result of the FCC’s rules change.

While it’s still too early to tell if mesh networking will truly take off this time around, as the country’s internet costs go up and standard speeds slow down, building your own internet — or connecting to a “DIY” network — is one great solution to resist the big corporations.