How a Brooklyn Community Created a Free Wireless Network After Sandy
This is what “free wifi” really means.
Many remember 2012 as the year former President Barack Obama was elected into office for a second term. But for many, it’s remembered in New York as the year Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. A Category 3 storm, Sandy pummeled a huge portion of the Atlantic’s coastal regions — including Red Hook, a historic waterfront neighborhood on the western side of Brooklyn.
After the small community suffered extensive hurricane damage — especially to power and communication lines — Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a non-profit organization targeting social, health, and energy problems, stepped in to start reconstructing the neighborhood.
RHI’s first mission: Get the internet back up and running in Red Hook through a project called Red Hook Wifi. “The ability to provide a free internet connection for people who may not be able to afford it is really critical to Red Hook Initiative,” said Jaebi Bussey, a technology specialist at RHI.
The team, almost entirely run by young adults from the community, began reconstruction by installing wireless transmitters called nano stations on rooftops around the neighborhood. The purpose of these nano stations is to provide communication between each station without the use of expensive, accident-prone cables, which are powered by huge solar panels positioned on rooftops.
“This became a huge hub for coordination efforts,” says Bussey, “and during that time, we didn’t plan for Red Hook WiFi to be that backbone of communication, but it really showed the possibility of a network in a central neighborhood.”
The new system was built tough, with the notion that it should be able to survive a Category 3 storm like Sandy should one strike again in the future.
“We quickly realized a few things about building a neighborhood network is, once you build it, you’ve got to keep it running — which means you’ve got to have people to fix it all the time,” Bussey says. “So part of the Digital Stewards program is actually training young adults how to maintain networks, how to test networks.”
The transmitters, solar panels, and network still exist today and continue to be maintained by young adults from Red Hook. Long after the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy was cleared, Red Hook Wifi still continues to be an invaluable resource to the community.
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