By Victoria Stevans
Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, an Allentown-based, nonprofit tech organization, wants to create a free, community wireless network for Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, but they need help to do it.
Founded by Executive Director Adam Longwill in 2012, Meta Mesh became a nonprofit in December of 2015. Since then, the organization has been building Pitt Mesh, its community wireless network.
Pitt Mesh is made possible with mesh-networking technology, the complexities of which are not necessary for a layperson to understand, according to Longwill.
“What is important to understand,” Longwill said, “is that all devices [in the mesh network] automatically find each other to create a network. No configuration required. You can very easily cover a campus, large office building, or business sector of a neighborhood.”
So, when Meta Mesh installs a router in a business or home, it becomes one more link in the Pitt Mesh network chain, connecting to other Pitt Mesh routers around it, therefore creating a larger sphere of community wireless connection.
Within the last six months, Meta Mesh has installed several Pitt Mesh devices in two Northside locations. First, one device was installed in a private residence in Riverview Park. Then, six devices were installed in Calvary United Methodist Church, 971 Beech Ave.
In both cases, all installed devices are now on the Pitt Mesh network, and along with providing internet access to the buildings in which they were installed, they also supply free wifi to their surrounding radius.
The Meta Mesh presence on the Northside is meant to expand even further within the next couple months.
“We are looking at another, larger location [in the Northside] as part of a private consultation,” Longwill said. “It’s a pretty big building by a business sector.”
Although Meta Mesh is new to the Northside, it has longstanding relationships with Allentown, Braddock, and the Hill District.
In 2014, Meta Mesh received the $8,000 Urban Redevelopment Authority Biz Buzz grant through the Hilltop Alliance to provide Allentown’s business district with free public wifi. After installing 16 wireless routers, free wifi became a reality along Allentown’s Warrington Avenue, according to Longwill.
“There are sometimes 20 to 30 people on that network at all times,” he said.
Meta Mesh also has 10 routers in the Hill District and over 20 routers in Braddock’s East End, amounting to about a mile of internet connectivity on Braddock Avenue.
The organization’s main goal, no matter its location, is working to close the ‘digital divide.’
The digital divide is the gap between those who have internet access – which is necessary for school, work, or general livelihood – and those who do not. According to the Meta Mesh website, about 23 percent of Pittsburghers do not have any way to access the internet in their homes.
“There is a time tax on people that cannot afford high speed internet,” Longwill explained. “[If you have high speed internet access,] you don’t have to worry about taking a bus, and buying a coffee just to check your email.”
The best way to bring free community wifi to the all residents of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, like the Northside, is by becoming a part of Pitt Mesh, if one has the means to do so.
“Code and configurations are completely open sourced, and instructions are on our website, so someone can build their own [router] and connect to the network,” Longwill said. (These Codes and Configurations can be found here on the Meta Mesh website: www.metamesh.org/step-by-step-configuration-instruct).
Another way to connect to Pitt Mesh is by buying pre-configured routers from Meta Mesh, which go for $75 a piece on their website. (You can buy them here: www.metamesh.tech). These would be installed personally.
Although residential mesh-network connection is a perfectly acceptable way to bulk up the Nortshide’s neighborhood wifi network, Longwill suggested a faster method.
“I recommend organizing,” he said. “If you have 20 to 30 businesses coming together and saying ‘we want free wifi, we want to do that together.’ They can get that.”
For further involvement this summer, Meta Mesh will also be hosting free classes on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) security and on building antennas.
“We also plan to redo six of our most popular classes on mesh networking,” Longwill said.
According to the Meta Mesh executive director, the most fulfilling part of his job is teaching these classes.
“It’s great to watch people realize how simple the processes are, to see them think ‘this is so easy and clear to me now,’” he said. “We just want more wireless technicians in the world.”
Visit Meta Mesh’s website (www.metamesh.org) for updates on summer classes and other ways to get involved with the organization’s programs. And, eventually Northsiders can bridge the digital divide and bring its neighborhoods up to high-speed.