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The goal of the Newport Wireless Mesh project is to provide low-cost, community supported mesh internet access to our primarily low income downtown neighborhood in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Internet access has evolved over the last 30 years from an interesting gadget for people who could afford it, to a service that everybody needs. Families in our neighborhood have told us that the school now expects children to do homework on a computer, but with a limited amount of after-school computer access and a limit of ½ hour per user at the public library, kids without internet access at home are stressing to fulfill this requirement. Internet access in the home is a luxury many can’t afford.
The Newport Wireless Mesh, Inc., a non-profit incorporated in the state of Vermont with 501(c)(3) status, is designed to meet this need. The project is an off shoot of a community group which has been in existence for about eight years, and for six years has run a small art gallery and community center which serves the Newport downtown neighborhood. A member of the group received the 2015 Governor’s Service Award in recognition of the center’s work.
Four years ago a member of our group visited Commotion Wireless, a project that developed user-friendly software for communities to set up mesh internet in under-served areas. She came back to the Northeast Kingdom with a great idea—Why couldn’t we set up a wireless mesh right here in Newport? We bought a few pieces of equipment and asked people around the neighborhood to try out the routers. About twelve households were able to get fair to very good free service during the pilot phase of the project while we gained expertise in what it would take to successfully run a mesh. Construction of the final project began in the summer of 2018 with the gateway atop the tower of the United Church of Newport. Nine access points hosted by neighbors on homes and businesses now serve the neighborhood.
Mesh internet routers have special firmware installed that allows all the routers in the system to communicate with one another, in a web pattern. By sharing the signal, mesh internet allows a very economical use of bandwidth. Even if there is no outside internet signal, the mesh will still function like a mini-web.
The Newport Wireless Mesh is a community supported and run project where neighbors share bandwidth, cost and responsibility for considerate use, so its value far exceeds just supplying a service. Successfully implementing this project could serve as a model for other under-served communities in the U.S. and for the internet of the future.
Newport is a small town in northern Vermont that was once a thriving industrial hub on the railroad line. Dams on the Clyde River supplied power to various mills and there was a large sawmill on Lake Memphremagog. Newport’s location on the passenger rail line between Boston and Montreal made it an easy stop for well-known entertainers. Between 1936 and 1953, the International Club in Newport had the largest dance floor in New England, capable of holding 2,000 dancers. There were several large hotels catering to tourists here to enjoy the lovely lake views and recreation. Old-timers remember coming into town from the many surrounding dairy farms to the thriving downtown commercial area.
All that is gone.
A combination of outsourcing of manufacturing, the dairy buy-off and the construction of I-91 left Newport in the dust. Many children of long-time farming families migrated to Newport looking for employment but found few options. The construction of Northern State Correctional Facility which opened in 1994 was supposed to provide jobs but also left Newport responsible for transitioning many of the newly released inmates.
Despite all this, Newport’s residents have shown remarkable resilience. Active promotion of the county’s small organic farms at local restaurants, utilization of the many talented artists and musicians who live in the surrounding area in a variety of cultural events such as the Wednesdays on the Waterfront, and dedicated efforts to organize recreational events like the Kingdom Swim that capitalize on the city’s natural beauty are just some of the ways that they have brought more visitors to the city.
None of this however has had a major impact on Newport’s lowest income residents, most of whom are clustered in the oldest section of Newport, a 0.06 square mile peninsula bounded on the north by lake Memphremagog and the south by South Bay. This tiny area includes approximately 350 households with a population density reaching 10,000 to 15,000 people per square mile in some blocks, a density similar to Chicago’s.
Median household income in the neighborhood is approximately $20,500/ year. Approximately 15% of residents attend grades 12 and under. Approximately 48% of children live below the poverty line.
The Newport Wireless Mesh has contracted with Consolidated Communications to bring fiber optic internet access to the gateway. The gateway uses a non-mesh router and an omni (360 degree) antenna. The non-mesh router transmits to other non-mesh routers at additional access points on the tops of other tall buildings. The gateway and each of the access points is connected by ethernet cable to a mesh router, from which routers located in households pick up. Each mesh router has the capability of connecting with every other mesh router.
Household installations use both indoor and outdoor mesh routers. Routers can be placed in windows, outside windows, or on or outside protected porches, which are common in the neighborhood. Each router is password protected so that node owners will have control over sharing.
The gateway and access points are bridged by Ubiquiti Nanobeam M5 routers. Each Ubiquiti is cabled to a mesh router at the access point.
Mesh internet differs from regular internet in that the routers have a package installed that allows each router to communicate with any other router in the system. It is thus free to pick up from whichever router in the system has the best signal. Wireless transmission typically loses bandwidth speed as the signal hops between routers, so the system is designed to minimize hops. The strength of mesh internet is its resilience. If the usual source for a household’s signal is blocked or decreased due to congested airways the router can select from several other sources. The more nodes on the system, the greater the resilience. Proprietary mesh firmware exists, but the Newport Wireless Mesh uses routers from Meta Mesh, a community mesh project in Pittsburg, Pennylvania, which are configured with a custom version of the open source router firmware OpenWrt, with Optimized Link State Routing protocol (OLSR). The hardware is produced by gl.inet. The routers have FCC certification and use 2.4 GHz radio frequency, a public frequency.
No system is completely secure. However, we strive to make Newport Wireless Mesh as secure as any wireless system. Our routers use the most recent version of OpenWrt. OpenWrt is maintained free of charge by a dedicated global group of open source enthusiasts who are continually upgrading and debugging the firmware. This keeps it up to date for security threats. Each router has a unique security key. Newport Wireless Mesh does not log websites visited by subscribers and does not share subscriber information with anyone else.
The bandwidth for the mesh is supplied through a dedicated fiber optic line with symmetrical download and upload. Wireless transmission typically supplies lower speeds at the household end than wired systems, but we aim to provide reliable service for most user needs at a cost that is affordable in the neighborhood.
System administrators monitor measures such as link quality and bandwidth usage to ensure a good user experience.
About the Board of Directors
Mary Alice Brenner is a retired former educator and public policy analyst. She has lived and worked in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont for over 25 years. She has a masters in Agriculture Resources Economics, with a specific interest in community development.
Peter Lewis (AKA LewisOne) is a “non-starving artist”, gallery painter, game programmer and comic illustrator who uses his talents to build video games, write and illustrate comic and children’s books, produce animated shorts and coach others in entrepreneurism and how to not be starving artists. He has a Master’s Degree in Marketing and Social Psychology and a PsyD in Consumer Psychology.
Colleen Moore de Ortiz A native of the Northeast Kingdom, Colleen attended Middlebury College as an undergraduate and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature with a minor in Spanish Language and Literature. Later she received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master of Science, and obtained licensure and certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner.
Diane Peel has a Master’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona and an Associates Degree in Nursing from Norwich University. She has worked as a professional archeologist and as a registered nurse. Since 2001 she has been actively involved in peace and justice issues and community organizing.
Lisa Jordan received her Bachelor of Science in Business from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. She previously worked in insurance claims management and after moving to Newport in 2010, opened TEMPO Administrative and Professional Services, LLC. Lisa lives in the project area and has been active in community volunteering.
Community volunteers are helping with everything from installation to website development and accounting.