Once the coronavirus hit, registered nurse Shannon Garcia suddenly needed to work from home, like thousands of others in the U.S. Not only would her isolation make space in a crowded hospital, she'd keep herself safe. Having cardiac arrhythmia and lung damage, she's more vulnerable to the global virus taking a toll on her health.
But she faced a serious problem: a lack of internet access. Internet service providers (ISPs) don't deliver internet in Clatskanie, Oregon, where she and her family lives on a farm surrounded by cattle ranchers. She couldn't contact her pregnant patients over video chat to check up on them.
Perplexed about what to do, she stumbled upon a rather atypical organization, Althea Network, running near her local community. She "stalked" them, she said, until they came to her area.
By looking to this small cryptocurrency company, she was able to get the internet when big internet companies couldn't help her.
This lack of home internet is common. More than a third (37 percent) of rural Americans don't have broadband internet at home, according to Pew Research. Brookings Institution argues this is partly because ISPs are less likely to provide infrastructure in rural areas. Even if broadband is available, it tends to be slower.
The coronavirus exacerbates the problem as millions of workers and students suddenly need to work or learn from home, or run the risk of spreading the coronavirus further. With no other options, these people might lose their jobs, an added strain to an already struggling economy.
To keep people connected so they can keep their jobs and even access telemedicine, Ethereum project Althea is powering internet connections in a novel way. It uses cryptocurrency as a payment method for internet connections brought about by community-powered mesh networks. The network devices accept payment in ether or DAI, with the company considering adding other cryptocurrencies in the future.
"Many people don't have proper internet infrastructure and we can rise to fill that need," Althea co-founder Deborah Simpier told CoinDesk, saying that the coronavirus crisis fills her with a greater sense of "urgency" than ever before.
Right now, it is building a broadband network in Washington, already with some success in delivering internet to people like Garcia who need it during this uncertain time.
Even before this crisis, access to the internet was a problem for many across the world, in what's become known as the "digital divide." And if it seems like the internet is ubiquitous in the U.S., costs and accessibility have long been problems for a significant portion of the U.S. population.
The coronavirus has made matters worse, leading to rapid and often unsettling changes and making people even more dependent on the internet.
Now schools are closing to try to contain the coronavirus, impacting 55.1 million students. Many of these kids are expected to turn to learning online. But three million U.S. students don't have their own access to the internet.
Simpier hopes Althea will be able to fill that need for some of these kids, so they're working to grow their networks beyond Oregon. "Right now we are primarily working on expanding our networks," Simpier said.
Up until December Althea has been putting a proof of concept together, and they've been mostly focused on Oregon, with networks splattered across the state. Now, with the pressing needs of the crisis, Simpier thinks there could be opportunity to build networks almost anywhere.
"This crisis is going to get worse in the coming months, so it's important to start now," she said in a recent community call, calling on volunteers to build more networks.
They're starting to spread, with networks of various sizes up and running in Tacoma, Washington; Denver, Colorado; and Abuja, Nigeria. And they're planning to expand to Haiti, Ghana, North Carolina, and Philadelphia.
It's not just the U.S. that's benefiting from this technology amid the crisis.
Helmed by small business owner Yakubu Yakubu (who goes by "Yakk Yakk"), the network in Abuja (Nigeria's capital city) delivers internet to more than 20 people who didn't have home internet connections before Althea came around (though they did have slow mobile connections).
Fatima Abdulhamid, who uses the network in Abuja, has been using the internet connection to work from home amid the pandemic. "It's huge that she can stay at home and continue to learn online. And not only that, but this is a source of income for her," Simpier argued.
Abdulhamid can earn money from this by contributing to the underlying infrastructure. Antennas that pass on the connection, called "relays," are spread across different houses in the neighborhood. If someone is close enough to one of these relays, they can use it to connect up to the internet.
Abdulhamid runs one of these relays in her home, delivering internet to neighbors.
This is where cryptocurrency comes into the picture. Other members of the group connect up to Fatima's relay node and pay her in DAI for her service.
"I am happy to be a relay because I can make money and I feel at home with the Althea network," Abdulhamid said in a statement.
"As more relays are added south of her, her own business to be empowered to make additional income," Simpier said. That's one reason why Simpier thinks it's so important for these networks to be built in emerging markets, it "empowers" people with an extra source of income, she said.
Simpier argues that Althea network is more flexible than what most ISPs, such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable, provide.
She started the project in Oregon in her rural hometown of Clatskanie. She was partly inspired by how an ISP did install a radio tower, but abandoned the project when they decided it just wasn't worth it.
The Althea mesh networks are "often" less expensive, and generally just less of a hassle, than setting up a full-blown radio tower, Simpier argued. "The economics of centrally held infrastructure require thousands of dollars of upfront costs and a long term [return on investment (ROI)]. With decentralization, many different people can contribute capex to building and growing the network and benefit from the revenue generated," she said.
Simpier argued that this flexibility is suitable for this crisis, seeing as people need internet connections right now to work or learn. It isn't exactly feasible to wait for expensive, giant radio towers to be built.
Their goal right now is to figure out how to set up these networks in as little as two weeks to address the crisis.
Simpier hopes the network will grow on its own out of need, like a vine growing uncontrollably in several different directions. Anyone running one of the intermediary relay devices can make money and other people can add relays to broadcast the signal further..
Yakk Yakk in Abuja, for one, is trying to onboard as many people as possible. He's just waiting for more antennas to be sent in so he can help to start another network in Lagos, Nigeria, about 434 miles away from Abuja.