When Hurricane Sandy knocked out Hoboken’s power, it also shut down many broadband routers, preventing people from using their wi-fi and thus, their internet services. Local entrepreneur and business owner Aaron Price has been working on the concept of a free, omnipresent way to keep Hoboken online, and his plan is not as outlandish or untenable as one might think.
“We’re using a new, low-cost technology to place antennas in people’s windows, on a roof or a balcony that would be able to pick up a signal from anywhere else in town, creating what’s called a mesh network,” he said in an interview last week.
“This can be done anywhere where people are taking the initiative to deploy it.” – Aaron Price
Hundreds of antennas
Sitting in the space at Mission 50 in the Hoboken Business Center he uses as his base of operations, Price looked across Hoboken, from the southwest corner to the northeast, and claimed that because he could see the uptown Shipyard development, he could theoretically use its internet signal via MileMesh.
“It has enormous potential to build a great piece of local communications infrastructure,” Price said.
So far, about 50 volunteers have signed up to host one of the antennas in their home or business. To fully blanket the city, Price estimated that Hoboken would need “hundreds, but definitely not over a thousand.”
“I think about eight per block would do it,” he said.
The antennas themselves only cost somewhere from $75 to $100 and aren’t much bigger than a standard router. Currently, Price and his team are planning how to implement system, both in terms of visibility to the community and gauging an accurate reading of the system’s effectiveness.
Since he is getting volunteers to host the equipment, he doesn’t have to ask permission from the city, though Mayor Dawn Zimmer has expressed support for the plan.
“It’s intended to be built using private tools and volunteers,” said Price. “If the city supports it, that’s awesome. And they have, but we’re not reliant on that.”
The idea for MileMesh initially got off the ground after one of the gatherings of the technology community that Price hosts once a month. Since he founded the NJ Tech Meetup in 2010, he’s made deep connections with nearly 3,200 members statewide, and after Sandy, nearly all of them were interested in lending Hoboken their assistance.
“We started a website called Heal Hoboken and sold t-shirts and sweatshirts and raised something like $32,000, which we donated to the Hoboken Relief Fund,” Price explained. “But afterwards a lot of us started to discuss a resilience project for keeping the town online.”
In addition to the NJ Tech Meetup, Price also runs a company called Livecube.co, and the self-described “startup guy” also explained what a mesh network could achieve for local business.
“I think this could go a long way toward making the city a really attractive place to build a company,” he said.
Mesh networks, which forms a parallel connections rather than a serial connections, have been used by cities around the world. A man named Anthony Townsend is exploring the concept in New York City, Barcelona has a relatively established system, and in the San Francisco Bay, Google is pushing the boundaries by trying to provide a network via anchored hot air balloons.
Price says that Hoboken should be next.
“Even though it's happening a lot in cities, the interesting thing about it is that can really be set up anywhere,” said Price, noting that many companies with remote desert facilities also use the technology to cut costs. “It’s a largely grassroots movement. It can be done anywhere where people are taking the initiative to deploy it.”
By the end of the year, Price hopes to count the residents of Hoboken amongst those intrepid few.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org