Community Access afforable housing wireless networks

NYCwireless NeedyNets program has build wireless networks at 4 Community Access low incoming housing facilities in NYC:

  • Ave. D in Manhatann – 45 Studio Apartments
  • Dekalb Ave in Brooklyn – 64 Studio/1 & 2 bedroom
  • Franklin Ave in the Bronx – 66 Studio/1 & 2 bedroom
  • Davidson Ave in the Bronx – 74 Studio/1 & 2 bedroom

Community Access provides low cost housing to people suffering from mental health disabilities. From their website:

“[Community Access is] a not-for-profit agency, helping people with psychiatric disabilities make the transition from shelters and hospitals to independent living. We provide safe, affordable housing and support services, and we advocate for the rights of people to live without fear or stigma.”

Getting started

In the process of evolving/planning the future of NYCwireless we identified serving the underprivileged as a core part of the NYCwireless mission. Making the this a goal was the easy part, getting a working program of the ground was challenging. The first problem was the lack of an outreach program to find suitable organizations to work with. We started by using word of mouth to communicate the goals of our program and got predictable results. Fortunately Joshua Auerbach approached us about installing wireless network in the CA Ave D building. Working with Josh and CA was ideal for us because they understood what we could offer and they were willing to live with our approach.


The first step was to put out a call for volunteers. The response was hard to believe. Over 20 people people responded when we were only expect 4-5. %99 of the volunteers had no/little experience. So we quickly realized we need to train the volunteers before setting foot on-site. The nice people at Techspace loaned us meeting space to conduct a class and we had our first ever NYCwireless training class.


A key part of the planning process was the site survey. Since Ave D. was our first building we improvised a large part of the planning . To get started we went on-site with a laptop equipped with the Cisco 350 Cardbus adapter and associated Cisco site survey tool and a Cisco 350 Access Point. Fortunately CA is small building which could easily work with a single AP per floor. Verifying coverage in the hallways was not sufficient for our needs so we arrange for apartment access to verify coverage. Our planning team setup an AP in the hallway and had the building super provide access to each apartment where we use the Cisco site survey utility to verify coverage/signal strength. During subsequent CA building installs we used the Airmagnet Surveyor site survey software tool to improve the accuracy of our plans. Airmagnet generously donated the software for NYCwireless use. The Surveyor software made the results of the planning and surveying process dramatically more predictable with a smaller time investment.


Terry Schmidt, the developer of Pebble Linux made the choice of wireless gateway easy. Pebble is easy to install Linux distribution that runs on cheap single board computer from Soekris Engineering, and contains all basic tools need to run a public wireless network including the NoCat captive portal software, DHCP, NAT, DNS caching, Dynamic DNS, etc. AP choice was pretty straight forward also. We needed the cheapest wall mounting, locking bracket, integrated antenna AP we could find. Against all intuition the Cisco Aironet 1100 AP fit the bill. The street price of the 1100 was sitting at approx. $410 and all the other contenders came up to about the same price when we added enclosures and antenna. The rest of equipment list was generic including 8 port Netgear switch, locking enclosure for the gateway, etc. To see the entire list of gear check out the budget for the project. The funding for the approx $3000 worth of gear was provide by Josh and grant from his employeer Time Warner Inc.


Installation list was similar to this some what ordered:

  1. Run vertical riser cable from 2nd flr closet to 3-6 flr closets
  2. Extend Telco demark from basement to 2nd flr closet
  3. Install AP mount brackets
  4. Extend cabling out to AP location on each floor, place cable in cable molds already in place
  5. Crimp RJ-45 connectors onto cabling
  6. Test each cable run
  7. Power on and verify operation of each AP
  8. Configure correct channel and power for each AP
  9. Place each AP and install padlock
  10. Install and configure Soekris gateway with PebbleLinux
  11. Install DSL modem and check for circuit operation
  12. Mount equipment encloser box in 2nd flr refuse closet
  13. Place DSL modem, Netgear switch, and Soekris gateway
  14. Connect each AP to switch
  15. Verify operation of each AP
  16. Test each via laptop connection

Install notes

  • Of course the DSL line did not work. I am not even going to tell you what hell it took to get this line up and working.
  • To many volunteers showed up. Normally I would say this was a good problem to have but the ratio of people qualified to lead and the number no/low skills volunteer was bad. I think some volunteers were not happy.
  • Using individual inline power injectors for the AP was a huge mistake. All future installs will use ethernet switch that provides inline power.
  • Have more then one experience installer to run teams of volunteers is key. Dan Benson from TowerStream and Terry Schmidt joined the crew which made it easier to divide and conquer. The install went much faster then planned. If it had only been me with all the volunteers it would have been a disaster. Plan your teams to be 3 people 4 max with one experienced installer on each team and then assign tasks to each team.
  • Building super helped with many mounting tasks. Leverage any willing building staff to assist.

Evolving process

Since Ave D. we have installed 3 more buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. We have managed to streamline the process so that we require fewer volunteers, spend less time on-site, make fewer mistakes and produce more supportable building networks.

  • We prefer the building/contractor to run the vertical Category 5/6 copper cabling. Dunn Development the developer of the last 3 buildings has generously provide the cabling and budget for the equipment.
  • NYCwireless SuperNode software. We are now utilizing the Wifidog captive portal software and the Pyramid Linux distro. Great captive portal software, a rock solid compact flash based Linux distro custom assembled to support wireless networks and great support from the NYCwireless SuperNode team.
  • Use of a Cisco Catalyst POE Ethernet switches to power all the Access Points. This dramatically reduced the amount of mess in the telecom closet.
  • Our last installation switched from using Cisco 1100 Series autonomous Access Points to using Cisco Wireless LAN controller solutions. This make installation and trouble shooting loads easier.
  • We have lost access to the Airmagnet Surveyor software and we are looking for a new sponsor for future building planning efforts. We are using the dixie cup method of wlan planning now.
  • The Cisco New York City office has provide a wealth of support and installation teams volunteers.

Ongoing Needs

We still need to improve the process further and can use volunteer to help.

  1. PC donations. We are looking for volunteer to help organize and distribute donated PCs to CA residents.
  2. Network mgmt. We have mininal network mgmt at this point and could use a volunteer that can setup and run a network mgmt system.
  3. Program expansion. We would like to offer this program to other organizations beyond Community Access. But we are currently short volunteer to run the program expansion. If you would like to volunteer to help with any of these. Or your are part of a community group that would like NYCwireless assistance deploying a wireless network please contact us.

Special Thanks

  • Joshua Auerbach – CA Board member and key volunteer/organizer
  • Martin, Ben and Maggie from Dunn Development – The developers of the Dekalb, Franklin, Davidson buildings that have made everything easier.

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