Nearly one-quarter of Pittsburghers live without internet access in their home. Without the web, many families are cut off from job opportunities or educational advancement.
Local technology company Meta Mesh Wireless Communications wants to bridge that digital divide by bringing free community internet into some of Pittsburgh’s low income neighborhoods, including the Hill District.
Meta Mesh installs routers, or the small devices that wirelessly transmit internet signals, throughout the neighborhoods – the Hill District currently has seven. Executive Director Adam Longwill said Meta Mesh’s goal is to root itself in each community. That’s why a group of people are selected in each area to maintain and operate the WiFi routers.
“It’s not a centralized effort,” Longwill said. “We’re trying to build something that we don’t own, that is going to become a public good, a resource that everyone can be a part of.”
The WiFi network expands as residents and businesses add routers to their buildings and transfer signals, blanketing each neighborhood with internet access. Neighborhood Allies awarded Meta Mesh a $15,000 grant to outfit the Hill District with public WiFi.
“Everyone keeps a piece of the map of the network in their pocket and when a request comes in to go to one part of the network, it’s figure out along the way, along the route,” Longwill said.
Because Meta Mesh isn’t an Internet Service Provider, it requires companies and individuals to donate bandwidth for the network to succeed. Bandwidth is the rate speed at which data can be transmitted, kind of like the Internet's speed limit--and the more bandwidth that is donated, the stronger the network.
“If you don’t want to donate, that’s fine,” Longwill said. “If you still want to be a part of the project, just put up a repeater.”
Repeaters would pass along the already-existing network connection. The small device allows signals to pass through and increase their radius.
In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Meta Mesh held informational classes throughout the fall. Attendees, mostly Hill residents, learned about the back-end of the internet, including networking basics, signal strength and how to build ethernet cable.
“When we look at equitable development and advancement of Pittsburgh, I don’t think that’s possible without a true connection to technology,” said Diamonte Walker, program associate with the Hill District Community Development Corporation.
The CDC paired with Meta Mesh in the hope of encouraging business growth in the Hill’s historic Centre Avenue corridor.
“The catalytic project on Centre Avenue is the New Granada Theatre,” Walker said. “Why that relates to neighborhood WiFi is because we are going to do a temporary activation of the first floor of the New Granada. It’s going to be a wireless network on a 100-year-old building.”
The New Granada Theatre started as a jazz hub in the Hill. Legendary musicians like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed there when they would visit Pittsburgh. Neighborhood groups are currently remodeling the site to be used for commercial and cultural space.
Tyler Coulverson, 27, attended every Meta Mesh class and said he became fascinated with the idea of mesh networking and free public WiFi.
“It just blended in well with what we’re trying to do here in the community,” Coulverson said.
Coulverson recently graduated from the Hill CDC’s Blast Program, which helps young entrepreneurs create business plans of their own. He said he’s working toward starting a health and wellness business offering massages, yoga and facials.
“One of the premises is to focus on not just solely the physical aspect of your body, but also the mental and spiritual aspect, as well,” Coulverson said.
While Coulverson anticipates the community WiFi will help his own business, he sees other potential opportunities for the web. He said he’d like to stream public speaking classes from another organization he’s trying to bring to the Hill: Toastmasters.
Toastmasters International is a club for people who want to improve their public speaking and communication skills. Founded in 1924, there are more than 15,000 clubs in 142 cities. There are several local chapters, but none in the Hill District.
Coulverson said he first thought about bringing the club to the neighborhood after attending a community meeting.
“Only about six residents showed up,” Coulverson said. “I felt that if there was something established in the community, that people could learn to be better communicators, then the club was perfect to allow people to get into a platform that they can learn to speak in public.”
By streaming classes online, Coulverson said more people could have access to the lessons and instructions.
Becky Zajdel, director of outreach for Meta Mesh, said while she hasn’t heard of people working on projects like Coulverson’s, the community collaboration aligns with their mission.
“Pittsburgh is a big little city and it’s made of relationships,” Zajdel said. “People have heart here and that really does mean something.”
And as technology has improved, Zajdel said mesh networking projects have gotten cheaper and more useful. Meta Mesh sells "nodes," which the company uses interchangeably with "routers," for around $150 and the system remains active even through a power outage, thanks to a battery back-up.
Though Meta Mesh has networks in Allentown and Braddock, it only held informational meetings in the Hill District.
“The response from the Hill District has been: something innovative is happening here, activity that looks like it’s going to take us into the future is being made available to us,” said Walker.
Longwill and Zajdel said they’re looking to expand further into the city and hope to someday be one of the largest community wireless networks in the United States.