As Internet demand spikes, Althea Network is bringing its “mesh” system of high-speed internet to underserved areas
  • Althea’s mesh network — where neighbors supply each other with internet and users pay with cryptocurrency — is deploying in the U.S. and Africa as demand rises.
  • The startup is expanding during the pandemic, as social isolation highlights the necessity of high-speed internet service for people working and studying at home.
  • Areas that are out-of-reach and unprofitable for service providers are opportunities for Althea.

The ability to conduct business and study at home during the COVID-19 pandemic depends on having fast, reasonably-priced internet access — something much of America lacks as service providers focus on profitable places.

For Althea Network, that underserved population has created an opportunity to deploy its service — a decentralized “mesh” network where neighbors more or less provide each other with internet connectivity without going through a major provider. The system uses wireless antennas and routers that pay each other with cryptocurrency for bandwidth.

With social distancing rules and lockdowns in effect around the world, high-speed internet usage is soaring. In rural areas of the U.S. about 4 out of 10 residents don’t have access to broadband, compared with only 4% of people in urban areas.

COVID-19 “has increased demand,” Deborah Simpier, co-founder and CEO of Althea, told Karma. “Networks that we were planning to finish in months, we are now building in four weeks. Municipalities and towns are asking us to come as quickly as possible.”

The first network started in Clatskanie, Oregon, northwest of Portland. The Clatskanie Co-op began with a commercial fiber internet subscription to Simpier’s computer repair shop, with the service then broadcast out using 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz antennas. The signal is picked up by relay nodes and then rebroadcast to other homes. As the signal moves, each router automatically sends cryptocurrency back and forth based on bandwidth usage.

“By commoditizing bandwidth, you pay for what you use, and Althea’s innovative routing protocol always selects the best quality and cost on a second-by-second basis,” Simpier said.

Internet service providers have avoided many rural areas because the spread-out population makes earning a profit nearly impossible. The so-called digital divide means rural people miss schooling and business opportunities and farmers don’t get access to the latest technology.

“Here in real Oregon, one-fifth of the students don’t have access to adequate internet,” Simpier said. “This is a huge disadvantage for rural children.”

Althea has already expanded to Tacoma in neighboring Washington, Denver, Colorado, and as far as Abuja, Nigeria, and T’adi, Ghana. Westport and Newberg, Oregon; Enfield, North Carolina; and Philadelphia are among the networks that should be up and running within a “few weeks,” Simpier said. Lagos, Johannesburg and some rural communities in Canada are among other projects in the pipeline.

Althea devices accept payment in ether or DAI, with the company may add additional cryptocurrencies in the future.

“The internet doesn’t have boundaries, so transactions shouldn’t either,” Simpier said. “Whether it’s Abuja, South Africa, Russia or here there should be frictionless settlement. We remove the layer of currency exchange by using Althea blockchain.”

Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images