Adam Longwill built his first wireless antenna using a wok.
“My parents, whom I was living with at the time, had DSL and they were too cheap to get a better connection,” the founder and CEO of Meta Mesh jokes.
“I was home from college and I was desperate for good Internet speed. I thought ‘Let me steal some Wi-Fi off of my neighbors, and so I started messing around with different antennas so I could reach further.’ I started to realize I could go really far with some antenna designs.”
Then he considered: what if he and a friend each put one on their roofs and pointed them toward each other?
“We could have our own private network where we wouldn’t have to pay for bandwidth,” he says. “What if we had a whole neighborhood doing it?”
Longwill and a friend started syncing up antennas to one another to create a private network. The result? Meta Mesh.
“It’s not exactly the normal way that people network their computers together; it’s actually called mesh networking,” says Longwill. “Basically all of the routers peer [connect] with each other instead of relying on a hierarchy of routers.” Mesh networking is a flat structure, as opposed to the pyramid structure of traditional networks.
Meta Mesh utilizes simple hardware installed in homes and businesses across the city that connects in a horizontal manner—unlike traditional networking where devices connect vertically to large ISP centers.
In a culture where we are becoming increasingly connected through technology, many fall behind. Internet access is not economically feasible or available for many households in the Pittsburgh area. Meta Mesh is hoping its PittMesh network will be the solution.
“We want to provide wireless access to neighborhoods who don’t have it,” explains Becky Zajdel, customer relations manager at Meta Mesh. Using off-the-shelf Wi-Fi nodes, Meta Mesh wants to provide free and secure citywide wifi.
How? Home or business owners can purchase these nodes and install them to extend the Wi-Fi signal.
“What we’re doing is taking that wifi outside those four walls, putting it out on the street, relaying and repeating it through a series of routers that are both outdoor and indoor. You basically have one wireless network that you can connect to up and down the street.”
Meta Mesh first brought their PittMesh network to Allentown in November last year establishing free W-Fi on Warrington Ave. Meta Mesh is extending the network to Braddock, Homewood and Morningside next.
Meta Mesh has a grant writer on staff who helps neighborhoods secure grants to install the nodes.
When the installation begins, the company teaches workshops about maintaining the systems and troubleshooting. Unlike traditional networks, beyond the initial cost of the hardware, there is no additional monthly cost.
Beyond just providing Wi-Fi so you can watch YouTube cat videos anywhere in the city, PittMesh can also come in handy in emergency situations.
“It’s an incredibly resilient network. Wireless mesh networks have been used in disaster areas, in Hurricane Katrina and Thailand. Because you’re not going through the ISP,” says Zajdel, “it maintains this resilient connection.” Since the network doesn’t rely on a single provider, PittMesh is more reliable.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, FEMA used a community mesh network in Red Hook. It was the only network still operating.
Meta Mesh uses solar powered batteries to run their nodes in Allentown, making the system functional even when the power is out.
There are many ways to get involved and help Meta Mesh grow their network. Zajdel encourages interested Pittsburghers to purchase a node and become part of the network.
“We’re always looking to expand PittMesh, and nodes can be independently purchased through us.” You can also start a discussion with your community or local city council to secure nodes in your neighborhood through grants.
For the technically literate, Meta Mesh is always looking for people to teach workshops on node maintenance and explore the system to report bugs. And Meta Mesh is launching a Kickstarter at the beginning of July to continue to grow PittMesh. “We want to light more neighborhoods up,” says Longwill.