Providence, Feb. 3, 2021 -When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many economic and racial disparities were exposed as key drivers of the spread of disease. The disparities have always been there, but the lack of safe, affordable housing, access to healthy and nutritious foods, and the ability to work and learn from home became even more acutely felt in the wake of growing community spread of the disease.
As lockdowns forced families to work and learn from home, access to broadband internet became critical. Unequal coverage and economic challenges made gaining access to broadband a game changer for residents in Olneyville, a neighborhood in central Providence. The community had been hit with the greatest number of coronavirus cases in RI (and 2nd highest per capita), as well as one of the lowest rates of Internet access, with 39% of residents lacking broadband access.
ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development leader in Rhode Island, decided to take action to bridge the digital divide: on November 25, 2020, ONE|NB launched ONE Neighborhood Connects. The initiative provided free Internet access to approximately 3,000 residents. We spoke with Jen Hawkins, Executive Director of ONE|NB, to ask her about the program.
Q) Congratulations for this accomplishment. The pandemic has forced people into their homes and broadband has become critical for work and school – and shining a light on this equity issue. It’s been a few months now, have you heard from the community? What has the response been?
A: The response has been fantastic! As of mid-January, our community wi-fi network has transmitted more than 900GB of data, and only 1% of the clients using the network experienced network issues. We’ve heard from neighbors that it has been a lifesaver for their family. Otherwise they would be forced to find WI-FI at a library or restaurant. In a time when we’re all supposed to stay home it’s made all the difference for some. We were happy to be able to take away at lease one worry from our families.
2) You had to learn how to do this in real time, were there any key learnings that you can share with those who are looking to replicate the program in other communities?
A: We engineered a point-to-point Wi-Fi mesh solution that was the result of some unique circumstances. First, we are fortunate that we own dozens of buildings in Olneyville so we did not have to seek permission to erect access points on 12 strategically-located properties. Also, the neighborhood may be dense but it is also made up of low-scale, wood-frame homes so the “line of sight” was not impeded by tall or brick buildings. Lastly, there is adequate fiber running through the neighborhood, so it was relatively simple to tie in. I would suggest that any community looking to develop Community Wi-Fi explore the options – a rural community will have a different set of challenges and opportunities, as will a traditional “downtown” district. For example, we were considering erecting one single 80’ Wi-Fi tower, but that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in our low-scale neighborhood.
3) You reacted to this crisis very quickly, has it been something on your mind for a while? How long did this process take to get it up and running?
A: When the pandemic hit Rhode Island in March, we quickly realized that internet connectivity was a major issue: what would have been an inconvenience pre-pandemic became crucial to live, learn, work, and connect with family members. It took us eight months to go from idea to launch – in retrospect that is exceptionally fast. Covid-19 jolted us with a sense urgency. ONE|NB looked at peer communities for solutions to bridge the digital divide. There were a few other communities also implementing Wi-Fi initiatives, including Detroit, New York City, and Pittsburgh. We looked to them for best practices; however, we had a unique advantage as a housing developer because we already own multiple buildings. One of the biggest challenges in creating a fixed network quickly and cheaply is finding good locations to install hardware. By eliminating that obstacle, we were able to move much more quickly.
4) While this was all new and unknown for your team, were there any surprises encountered through this process that were notable or still need resolving?
A: Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to go inside homes and buildings to calibrate the signal strength. That might need to be adjusted eventually. The biggest surprise was the need for specialized data engineering and electricians for installation.
5) What are the next steps for this program. What do you still need to do.
We’ve already been talking to elected officials from other neighborhoods – our hope is that we can expand this program, but of course this is dependent on funding. As the pandemic showed us, access to Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury – it’s a necessity and an issue of equity.