In 2015, Meta Mesh set off on an ambitious quest: to provide all of Pittsburgh with free, high-speed wireless internet. In the years since, the small nonprofit has realized the mission — albeit with varying degrees of success — in Braddock, the Hill District and in Allentown, where its offices are based at the co-working space, Work Hard Pittsburgh. Now some new funding will allow them to cover the rest of the city.
In late September, Meta Mesh received a $120,000 grant from the Hillman Foundation to expand free public WiFi throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The money will enable them to establish PittMesh, a sustainable WiFi network communities can rely on, especially during emergency situations where power outages could wipe out private routers and leave people stranded. On a more day-to-day basis, it would allow individuals to travel throughout Pittsburgh using their devices without using data.
Meta Mesh Co-founder and Executive Director Adam Longwill believes the service could improve the quality of life for many Pittsburgh residents, including those in underserved areas.
“There are a lot of people who need internet access and there’s a huge tax on their time to access it,” says Longwill, adding that a person shouldn’t have to take a bus to the library in order to check their email. “We want to see ubiquitous internet access and we think we have a model to deliver it.”
Before, the organization depended on donated bandwidth from neighborhood businesses like cafes or coffee shops. The signal was then bounced off nearby repeater routers, allowing it to spread and create a WiFi bubble.
But, as Meta Mesh Co-founder and Director of Outreach, Becky Zajdel, points out, the approach presented its share of challenges.
“[Businesses] still had questions about security and were hesitant to donate,” she says. They also found that more residential communities — such as one of their original target neighborhoods, Morningside — lacked a large enough business district to support a WiFi network.
The networks are also limited in terms of bandwidth, Longwill says, with “a bunch of little WiFi routers that can spit out 20 to 50 megabits a second.”
To solve this issue, Meta Mesh decided they needed a way to acquire their own bandwidth and push it out into neighborhoods as opposed to depending on the charity of others. So they approached the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), a Harrisburg-based nonprofit that works to provide internet connectivity to organizations throughout Pennsylvania.
“We came up with a plan where [KINBER] gave us unlimited, low-cost, high-speed fiber bandwidth,” says Zajdel, adding that they plan to share it with developing communities in Pittsburgh or resell it to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to provide free or low-cost public WiFi in high-traffic spaces like Market Square.
So far, Meta Mesh has seen success with the new approach during the recent Hilltopolis event in Grandview Park, where they supplied public WiFi for more than 700 attendees. Longwill says that in the coming months, they plan on “expanding the network that we have and making it more resilient, useful and usable.”
The Meta Mesh team is also helping to build a mesh network in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico by using satellite internet and solar-powered devices.