Sharpsburg’s business district is about to become a hotspot in every sense of the term.

This month, thanks to a partnership between the nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, the borough government and local small businesses, a new and free public wi-fi network will launch along a quarter-mile stretch of the borough’s Main Street.

Speeds up to 300 megabits per second will be provided to every resident, business and visitor thanks to a series of routers strategically positioned along the road. Several of the community’s notable businesses, including Dancing Gnome brewery, Cafe on Main, Ketchup City Creative and Sugar Spell Scoops, donated brick-and-mortar space for the equipment. The borough government will fund the ongoing upkeep of the network, which will be handled by Meta Mesh technicians.

“It will provide a unique amenity,” says Becky Zajdel, co-founder and director of outreach at Meta Mesh. One “that can potentially increase foot traffic to local businesses as well as help bridge the digital divide in Sharpsburg.”

Courtesy of Meta Mesh.

Meta Mesh technicians are putting finishing touches on the network, which they estimate will be finished by the end of July.

Zajdel says that a lack of access to fast, reliable internet is a growing issue across the nation, but is especially acute in Pittsburgh, where nearly one-third of homes lack internet access, according to census data and other studies.

“Broadband exclusion in Pittsburgh,” explains Zajdel, “is a rising problem, and it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”

Meta Mesh did its own door-to-door surveys locally in 2018 and found that in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, such as Uptown and Homewood, the number of households without internet access is 70% or higher.

“This is drawing a huge line between the haves and the have-nots,” says Zajdel.

In an age where the vast majority of jobs applications are submitted online, and seven out of 10 American students are assigned homework that involves internet access, “It is no longer a luxury to have internet, it is an absolute necessity,” she adds.

But far from giving residents easy access to the online world, our local laws make municipal and community-owned internet projects especially challenging.

Pennsylvania is one of 26 states with laws blocking or limiting municipal broadband services. In our case, municipalities may only build and sell access to their own networks if established private companies decline to offer the desired services, essentially giving Comcast and Verizon the right to spend years blocking new initiatives.

“You know what that leaves? The efforts of the nonprofits like us,” said Zajdel. “And that’s why it’s so important.”