2020 has been a year to remember. We have have struggled with and succeeded in maintaining ties with our fellow community members despite a pandemic and social divisions. Nothing will ever be quite the same, but it looks like we’re going to make it.
Through all this, Newport Wireless Mesh is still here and moving forward. Since April, 2020 our office space at The 99 Gallery, which we converted to public computer use and reading space, has seen over 350 scheduled visits by community members to use the internet, read the paper or have a cup of coffee one or two at a time so that social distancing was maintained. Community members were sad about the loss of camaraderie that used to happen here when it was possible to just “drop in” but we’re happy we can still be of service despite the pandemic.
During 2020 we created twelve two-minute educational videos which were sent monthly to subscribers and available to others on Youtube, our Facebook page and our website. Topics included how the mesh works, how information travels around the internet, how to use web browsers and search engines and how to stay safe when using the internet.
2020 also saw the construction of four new access points and the net addition of eleven new households to the mesh. The access points covered 2nd Street, Eastern Avenue, Bayview Street and the lower end of Pleasant Street. We now have enough access points to accommodate an additional twenty households. We have fifty routers deployed at this time. These include subscribers home routers (a few have more than one router due to unusual circumstances), access points, bridges and relays.
Newport Wireless Mesh receives many used computers, keyboards and monitors from generous donors. In 2020 we refurbished and donated eight computers to mesh subscribers and others.
But our main focus for 2020 has been improving service. Our neighbors not only deserve affordable internet, they also deserve that is reliable and meets their needs for web browsing, keeping in touch with friends and family and streaming TV. We’ve found that most subscribers are using the mesh as an inexpensive replacement for cable TV.
Significant Issues in 2020
The Merakis: Martin Kennedy of Lab B in Burlington has donated many Cisco Meraki MR16’s to the mesh. These routers which originally sold for $400, are now available on the market for much less because the company no longer supports the cloud-managed firmware. That’s great for us! This is still very usable hardware which is compatible with Openwrt.
We spent many weeks experimenting with the Merakis before deploying them in mesh households and as access points. The Merakis transmit and receive on both 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz frequencies and have a more powerful signal than the Gl.inets. While we are not yet using 5 Ghz in the mesh, subscribers are now able to connect via 5 Ghz to their home router if their device allows it, with improved speed.
Martin also wrote a two step flashing procedure for us. Toward the end of 2020 he provided us with a one-step flash and upgrade which only requires a small amount of subsequent configuration. The flash and upgrade also uses the latest version of Openwrt which has not yet been released. We have two of these currently deployed for testing with good results. [Update as of July,2021: We have now replaced numerous routers with routers using firmware based on the final release of Openwrt 21.02.]
We also began deploying two-tiered access points at some locations. This doubles the capacity of the access point and provides better vertical coverage.
Volunteer Thadd Beebe has modified all the Merakis to accommodate external antennas.
Security: In the fall of the year we discovered that a device on one of the access points was attempting to connect to other routers in the system. A connection does not mean that the device was able to access the router or any other subscriber’s device because each router is protected with a strong unique administrative password. Most likely this was not an actual person but a malware bot on a subscriber’s device. With help from Fred Wiseman, Senior IT Specialist at Vermont Electric Coop, we are strengthened our firewall to prevent his behavior.
Reliability: The fall of 2020 also saw some frustrating behavior by a few routers in the system that caused the subscriber to not be able to access websites on the internet even though their router had internet access. This was very worrisome since our goal is to provide consistent service. The issue is ongoing [Update as of July, 2021: This problem has been resolved.] and both Martin and Fred have provided diagnostic tools to collect data that will help us resolve it. In general over the last year the performance of the mesh has improved and we plan to continue that trajectory.
Direction for 2021
Martin has recently provided us some waterproof cases for the Merakis which already have antenna attachments. The cases required some modification by Thadd to fit the MR16 boards. We also have two Cisco Meraki MR66’s which we should be able to flash with the same procedure as the MR16s. After testing. these devices should be able to replace our Gl.inet access points. Since some of these access points are difficult to reach, this will be a major project.
We plan to replace all of the existing home routers with MR16’s over the next year.
A Main Street access point is in the works for 2021.
As we improve service while keeping the subscription cost down, we expect attracting new subscribers will be just a matter of getting the word out!
Long Range Plans
Developing a long-range plan for the mesh is crucial. Once completed, the downtown neighborhood configuration can be repeated with additional gateways in other parts of the city. Some thoughts for expansion include the following possibilities: Encorporating the mesh in another agency such as NEKCA or as part of municipal government could provide donated office space. Equipment costs could continue to be funded by grants. In this scenario, enrolling subscribers will be much easier, with subscriptions covering the cost of new gateway backhaul. Training additional system administrators will definitely be our biggest challenge.
If anything, this year has proven that information is one of the most important factors shaping our community, our nation and the world. The internet will see many changes over the next ten years, but non-profit locally controlled internet service providers like Newport Wireless Mesh should be part of the internet of the future.
——Diane Peel, Project Coordinator