This tech startup is starting its own net neutral, independent internet

Lauren RandolphDamian Bradfield, WeTransfer’s President and CMO
  • File transfer startup WeTransfer is creating its own net neutral wireless network.
  • The pilot program will be open to a few households in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
  • For the first three months, the service will be free.

Monday marked the first day in the US without net neutrality – the Obama-era rules preventing AT&T, Comcast and other internet service providers from blocking, slowing down, or prioritising internet traffic.

And depending on how an experiment turns out in Venice, California, Monday could also mark the beginning of a new “build-your-own-internet” era.

WeTransfer, a file transfer startup based in the Venice neighbourhood in Los Angeles, is partnering with a local outfit called the Community Broadband Project to create a “fixed wireless network” – series of wireless routers and antennas that allow customers to get online without going through a big, traditional ISP.

In practice, it looks similar to a decentralized mesh network, which is created when households install routers – known as “nodes” – that then connect to local antennas, creating a distinct local network. But customers won’t own or have to manage any of the equipment.

“What the FCC is doing is basically taking us backwards in time where the provider was basically allowed to tell you if you could access BitTorrent or Skype.” Damian Bradfield, WeTransfer’s President and CMO, told Business Insider. “Fundamentally we believe the power shouldn’t be with the ISPs to make those sorts of decisions.”

A grassroots tradition that’s ready for Prime Time

Mesh networks have been tools for grassroots organisations looking to shirk the influence of powerful ISPs for years. Although they are used in rural areas that don’t have access to broadband services, their use isn’t widespread. A few tech companies have their own fibre and internet connections within their own buildings, but this is the first time a company is offering an independent connection to households in the area.

“We were looking for a way that not only we could benefit from an internet that is net neutral, but also some degree educate people around us that there is an alternative,” Bradfield said.

WeTransfer’s is helping to fund the project in addition to housing an antenna, while the Community Broadband Project will supply the labour needed physically manage the other nodes and antennas. Right now, the network is still in beta testing, meaning that only a 15-20 households near WeTransfer’s headquarters in Venice can sign up. But those who are eligible will get free internet until the beta period is over in three months. Then, the Community Broadband Project will set prices, which they hope will be cheaper than a regular broadband connection.

While WeTransfer is putting money into the network, Bradfield said the company won’t profit from it.

This initial rollout only covers a small portion of Venice, but Bradfield said they will be looking to expand if there is enough interest.

“The first stage here is to really just see how people respond to a newcomer in the market and see how open people are to trying something different,” Bradfield said.

Mesh networks have their share of problems, though, including a complicated setup process, slow speeds at times, and a fair amount of upkeep, which in part explains why they haven’t become overwhelmingly popular. WeTransfer and the Community Broadband Project will own and manage all of the equipment, which they hope will make it easier to have than a typical decentralized mesh network.

Ultimately, Bradfield said, he wants the FCC to reinstate net neutrality rules. States such as California, Oregon, and Washington are in the process of passing their own state-level net neutrality laws. Although bringing back net neutrality on a federal level is unlikely given FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s stance on the issue, several states and organisations have sued the FCC.

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