Meshtastic: A Neighbourhood Mesh Realized

Are you a Meshtastic user in North Toronto? Reach out and I will invite you to a local Meshtastic Discord group.


A mesh network is a network where all participants can communicate with each other, with each participant cooperating with the transmission of information.

I love the idea of mesh networks, where anyone who wants to take part can just jump in, and there’s no dependency on a communications provider for service. In 2016, I attempted to build out a mesh built with wifi technology in my neighbourhood but I was unable to generate interest.

I had been following the development of LoRa and Meshtastic for quite some time, and finally decided to check it out. Meshtastic is very different from wifi - although it can provide much greater range, its capabilities are very basic - essentially, sending location and 228 character messages to anyone connected to the mesh. My understanding was that the technology works best with line of sight, scales to 200 nodes in practice - but what does that really mean? A part of my wanting to play with it was to see what was possible in my environment: an urban area.

Clicking Buy Now on Aliexpress

I decided to order 2 boards, as I didn’t know if I’d see anyone else on the mesh. I ordered a Heltec V3 and a Heltec Tracker V1.1 from Aliexpress. These are just bare boards and antennas - no battery, no case.They were both supported by Meshtastic, and less than $30CAD each. I figured I would plug one in at home, and wander around with the GPS one, and see what I could see - how far could I go and maintain contact with my home node?

The Meshtastic software is pretty slick - plug the board into your PC, open up in Chrome (as it supports Web Serial), select the firmware and it installs. You can then interact with the mesh using the board with either your PC or your iOS/Android phone, connected through Bluetooth, wifi, or a USB connection.

The Heltec boards came packaged in little plastic cases. I ended up drilling 2 holes in the plastic packages, for the antenna and for USB, and using them as cases. It works. All of my experience so far has been with the stock antennas.

My Heltec V3 and Tracker V1.1 with Improvised Cases

My Experience In An Urban Area

  • I live on the 18th floor of a building. I’m surrounded by condo towers and a sprinkling of office buildings. Using the stock antenna, and just plugging in my Heltec V3 to USB power on a desk, I am able to communicate with 2-3 other nodes in my neighbourhood - this was really exciting. Wandering around with my mobile node, I can connect to my home node at a fast food outlet across the street, and the first park beyond the coffee shop.
  • My unit faces east. On the opposite side of my building, I can’t connect to my home node from ground level. However, I have been able to connect to it from further west, presumably through hops on other’s nodes.
  • I had wondered if I’d be able to track myself through the neighbourhood, connecting to my home node through the mesh. This has not been possible. My home node can see a few other nodes as it is on the 18th floor, but wandering around at ground level, my mobile node sees fewer nodes, and has less opportunity to connect to the mesh.
  • As a parent of a couple teens, I’m frequently dropping off kids for activities and part time jobs. I’ve wandered around a couple neighbourhoods with mostly single family homes, and I might wander for an hour and maybe come across a single node.
  • Some of the highest points in North York are on the hills at Downsview Park. From there, I can reach quite a few nodes, some around 10 km away.

My Experience In A Rural Area

  • I put a radio on a deck chair, put a radio in my back pocket, hopped on my paddleboard, and started paddling. I was able to maintain contact for about 1.5 km. Given that there were no obstacles blocking line of sight, I was hoping for more. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a radio mounted to my head some how - a bit further in the air, and away from my body.

A Community Is Built

Meshtastic is a really neat technology for connecting. It is inexpensive, it is very local, and it appeals to a narrow, technical niche, so it has been a great way to connect with people with similar interests in my area. Within a couple of days of powering on my unit, someone reached out on Meshtastic to connect. A local Meshtastic Discord group was formed.

I set my node name to my website URL. A Meshtastic user near my daughter’s dance school saw my node pop up when I was wandering in their neighbourhood. They then found me online, connected over email, and they have since joined our group. Another person saw my Meshtastic node, and recognized from my URL that I was the same person that tried to get a wifi mesh started in my neighbourhood years ago. We’ve connected with a person who commutes through the neighbourhood with their Meshtastic radio on their way to work, and a pilot who’s flown a plane overhead with his Meshtastic radio.

It’s been a lot of fun, as everyone shares their experience as we all learn what Meshtastic can do.

What next?

  • I’ve ordered a couple antennas which I saw recommended on the Meshtastic site. I’m curious to test their impact - I’d like to repeat my test over water or another area with great line of sight, and see the difference that makes.
  • Someone in our local group has mounted a radio on a drone, which he then flies high, to connect to distant nodes, with some success. I’d like to try the same, but with a kite at Downsview Park (similar to my experience flying a kite with a camera)