How Free Wifi Became the Unlikely Lifeline for One Brooklyn Neighborhood

A free wifi project became a community salvation.

In 2018, Red Hook Initiative’s free wireless network, Red Hook Wifi, was accessed more than 8,500 times, connecting 4,400 Red Hook residents to vital resources, like neighborhood events, information sessions about city services, and community meetings. But when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the network soon became a lifeline for the Brooklyn community.

With communication and power lines down, they had to rebuild. Red Hook Initiative stepped in with their first mission: connect Red Hook to free wifi.

Red Hook Initiative, a local community center for young adults in Red Hook, had been planning to set up their wireless internet connection across Red Hook before Sandy hit. “This became a huge hub for coordination efforts,” Jaebi Bussey, a technology specialist at RHI tells Inverse, “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.”

Watch the video above to see how Red Hook Initiative built its free wifi network.

The system is built on gateway and access points that keep the signal strong between buildings. Some of the stations are powered by solar energy, so in the event of a power outage the community can stay connected.

“One of the things we want to do is build our gateways to be resilient, so if another Sandy happens, we have some sort of redundant source of energy,” says engineer Rob Smith.

Red Hook rebuilt with help from community WiFi
After Hurricane Sandy, Red Hook businesses relied on community centers like Red Hook Initiative and programs like Red Hook Wifi to rebuild.

The system is maintained by a group of young adults who make up the RHI Digital Stewards program. They test the wifi signal across the community to make sure it’s running smoothly. The program allows these young adults to train for tech and media careers by coordinating projects and events. The Digital Stewards also recently created their own internal production company to make college scholarship applications and technology tutorials.

“It’s beyond that I know how to make a network cable,” Bussey says. “It’s actually what that network cable and the opportunities that it brings connect me to, and how those opportunities begin to transform how other people treat me.”

Red Hook Wifi currently has 17 signal points in the community, with 23 more pending sites. By 2020, it hopes to provide coverage to the entire Red Hook neighborhood with no connectivity gaps.

Media via Inverse