Before Marco Antonio Santana could speak English, he was speaking computers. Now, the 32-year-old, who grew up in a Dominican household in New York City, helps provide high-speed fiber internet installations and repairs to over 180 units in a low-income housing complex in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I’ve been a nerd my whole life,” he tells me, running a delicate strand of fiber-optic cable into a splicer in NYC Mesh’s workroom.
We climb to the roof of the 26-story building with striking vistas of the city’s water towers, bridges and prewar buildings. There, multiple long-range antennas and routers connect wirelessly to other rooftop nodes as far out as Brooklyn, miles away across the East River. It’s one glimpse into the growing network that NYC Mesh has built over the last several years.
NYC Mesh is not an internet service provider, but a grassroots, volunteer-run community network. Its aim is to create an affordable, open and reliable network that’s accessible to all New Yorkers for both daily and emergency internet use. Santana says the group’s members want to help people determine their own digital future and “bring back the internet to what it used to be.”
Internet access is an essential part of our daily lives: for employment, health, education, communication, finances and entertainment. Yet there’s a staggering divide between those who can afford to connect and those who can’t. At least 42 million Americans are estimated to have no access to high-speed internet, according to the data technology company Broadband Now.
The lack of low-cost, reliable broadband options densely weighs on poor, Black, Latino, indigenous and rural communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when being online was the only lifeline, the crisis became even more acute.
“There’s a stark problem of access,” says Prem Trivedi, policy director at the Open Technology Institute. Students doing homework in a fast-food parking lot to get free Wi-Fi is not sustainable. “That’s an intermittent connection that requires upending your life to do bare necessities.”
Digital equity is a herculean mission. It means going up against the few incumbent ISPs — Xfinity, Spectrum, AT&T, Verizon and the like — that determine prices, terms of service, speeds and where infrastructure is built.
“ISPs are always trying to maximize profits. We are just trying to connect our members for the lowest cost possible,” says Brian Hall, one of the lead volunteers and founders of NYC Mesh.
Historically, when the private market fails to supply access to a basic good, communities have stepped in to fill in the gaps, according to Sean Gonsalves, associate director for communications at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It’s how the electric and telephone cooperatives got started in rural America a century ago.”
Providing donation-based internet access is part of NYC Mesh’s objective to serve the underserved. The premise is that communication should be free. “We will never disconnect