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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.
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 for six years ran a community center which served the Newport downtown neighborhood. A member of the group received the 2015 Governor’s Service Award in recognition of the center’s work.
Seven 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? Construction of the final project began in the summer of 2018 with the gateway atop the tower of the United Church of Newport. Since 2019 the center has been been dedicated solely to running the mesh and as a place where people can use computers, print or copy for free, read and check out books from our excellent library or just hang out.
Mesh internet routers allow routers in the system to communicate with one another, in a web pattern. Even if there is no outside internet signal, the mesh will still function like a mini-web.
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.
Newport Wireless Mesh’s backhaul is provided by a Consolidated Communications fiber optic line.
Household installations use both indoor and outdoor mesh routers. Routers can be placed in windows, outside windows, or on or outside protected areas Each router is password protected so that node owners will have control over sharing.
The gateway and access points are bridged by Ubiquiti routers. Each Ubiquiti is cabled to a mesh router at the access point.
Mesh internet differs from regular internet in that the router can pick up from whichever router in its neighborhood that has the best signal. Newport Wireless Mesh got started with routers from Meta Mesh, a community mesh project in Pittsburg, Pennylvania, which were configured with a custom version of the open source router firmware OpenWrt.
We now deploy Cisco Meraki MR16’s, 62’s and 66’s. These more powerful routers have dual band capability which has allowed subscribers to connect to their home router on the faster 5 Ghz band. The proprietary firmware is removed and the routers are flashed with our custom mesh firmware based on OpenWrt.
No system is completely secure. However, we strive to make Newport Wireless Mesh as secure as any wireless system. Our routers use OpenWrt. OpenWrt is maintained free of charge by a dedicated global group of open source enthusiasts who are continually upgrading and debugging the firmware. Each router has a unique security key.
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
Paul Dreher received his Master of Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked as an urban planner and architect for over 25 years. He is a Newport City resident and has a long history in involvement in improving quality of life in Newport, including serving as the Director of the Newport City Planning and Zoning Department and chairing the Newport City Renaissance Corporation’s Design Committee.
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 & Social Psychology.
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.
Tammi Monfette’s family has lived in the NEK for several generations. She is retired and has three children and six grandchildren. She has been active in community service and volunteering and is an avid supporter of the importance of affordable community wifi.
Martin Kennedy is an embedded hardware and Linux enthusiast living in South Burlington, Vermont. He has served as a technical advisor to the mesh for three years. During the day, he works at Physician’s Computer Company, a local pediatric-specific EHR software company. Outside of work, he helps run Laboratory B, Vermont’s first co-operative hackerspace. He is known for making a mean curry, firmware reverse-engineering, and generally getting up to no good.