Free WiFi on East Carson Street?
South Siders will soon have another way to keep in contact with one-another in the electronic world.
Simply put, a node is a wireless modem connected to other wireless modems in the mesh. The mesh is an open network anyone can log into, similar to a home or business network, without charge. The mesh can carry information, such as local weather and advertising targeted to the local area.
Adam Longwill, founder of Meta Mesh, says users of the mesh have access to the Internet through excess bandwidth provided by the owners of the nodes. Each individual owner sets limits on how much bandwidth can be used by the mesh and the owner’s personal use always takes priority.
He pointed out owners don’t have to worry about users accessing their home or business networks, firewall rules prevent such intrusions.
Becky Zajdel, director of outreach for Meta Mesh, now has more than 30 nodes in five neighborhoods: Allentown, Braddock, Brookline, Hill District and South Side. Allentown boasts the most nodes with 10. South Side has one node at the Beehive and two additional nodes on the Slopes.
Ms. Zajdel said while South Side has many businesses and many of those offering free Wi-Fi to their customers, there are still a lot of gray areas. Meta Mesh would fill in those gray areas by allowing access anywhere there was a node.
Cost to install a node ranges from $75 to $150 depending whether it is mounted outside on the side of a building or inside next to a window pane. In either case the node is about the size of a deck of cards. Much smaller than the original antennas used in the mesh system.
Mr. Longwill said the big antennas were “great,” but there were issues with people finding them unattractive. The new smaller nodes are more powerful and can be mounted in an inconspicuous manner, even behind a window pane.
The smaller inconspicuous size is important in a historic business district such as East Carson Street.
Ms. Zajdel explained as a non-profit they have been able to use grants and crowd-funding to place some of the nodes in different neighborhoods. Many of the nodes in Allentown were placed through a Biz-Buzz grant through the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Neighborhood Allies grant is funding the network in the Hill District.
In South Side, because of the large number of businesses, they may approach the business owners themselves to install the nodes as an amenity for their customers. Due to the reach of the smaller, more powerful antennas, only one is needed every-other block for full coverage. However, geography and line-of-sight also affect the range of the node.
However, Ms. Zajdel said the more they expand with additional nodes, the fewer gaps and the more robust and seamless the network would be.
Although the South Side would have its own mesh, Mr. Longwill said, it would still be connected to all the other neighborhoods. The advantage is that if for some reason Internet service goes down in South Side people would still be able to access the Internet through Pitt Mesh and other neighborhoods’ networks.
Additionally, South Side would have its own community hub. The hub and the nodes are also equipped with battery and solar back-up in case of power failures.
Mr. Longwill noted 23 percent of Pittsburghers don’t currently have Internet service and depend on public transportation to get to libraries, coffee shops and other places offering free WiFi. With the mesh network on South Side, free service would be available to all with the benefit of being able to target messages to a local audience.
Ms. Zajdel said the service differs from the free WiFi offered Downtown. The neighborhood meshes are “hosted” by the individuals purchasing the nodes and aren’t time limited. The Downtown service limited the amount of time a user could be logged on.