Community Networks Borne Out of Covid-19 Continue to Strengthen and Expand

With vaccines rolling out tier by tier, state by state, and restaurants, bars and public spaces starting to reopen one by one, there seems to be a desire to say, “Wow, things are going back to normal!” Unfortunately, the public health crisis exacerbated healthcare, education, and economic inequities that have long existed in low-income and communities of color across the country and have no chance of going away any time soon. But some community leaders have stepped up and come to the table with one piece of the puzzle in bridging these inequities — better Internet access to these communities. 

Over the summer, we covered several communities that jumped to action and came up with quick ways to implement long-term solutions. 

The city of San Rafael, which sits on the coast of northern California in Marin County, continues to strengthen, expand, and research the use of the network it built over the summer and fall for one unserved area hit hard by the economic, education, and health impact of Covid-19. And on the other side of the country, Meta Mesh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania continues construction on a pilot project that is hoping to connect unserved families by the end of this summer.

Focusing on the Future

In San Rafael, California, the city, Marin County and a nonprofit organization — the Canal Alliance — all joined forces to bring free Wi-Fi to the Canal neighborhood

Marin County’s Chief Assistant Director of Information Services and Technology Javier Trujillo said that the network is continuing to grow, but it has been largely deployed. The network — called Canal Wi-Fi  — encircles the neighborhood (see map, right), making it possible for residents to connect wherever they are when outdoors. In its current state, the network does not reach into every home because the access points mounted on street poles in the neighborhood cannot penetrate the walls of the apartment buildings. The coalition continues to seek ways to improve penetration as the project continues.

While a long-term solution would be to deploy fiber to each premises or bring wireline infrastructure to an access point inside these buildings and deliver wired or wireless service throughout, many of the apartment buildings are owned by absentee landlords who have exclusive agreements with other larger service providers.  

“Fiber-to-the-Home is really not as straightforward here because landlords will do those exclusive deals with corporations. Comcast will come in and say ‘sign an exclusive deal with me and it'll generate revenue for you,’” Trujillo said. “It’s really hard to say what singular solution we can provide.” San Francisco offers one option, with a law that gives renters the right to multiple Internet service providers.

The impetus for the network was addressing the needs of students trying to do distance learning — either they were fortunate enough to have learning pods, or they didn’t get to learn, Trujillo said. But really the long-term goal is to connect the entire neighborhood. 

At first, everyone was talking about handing out school laptops and getting hotspots up and running, but hotspots were not going to be able to do the job. There’s only one cellular tower serving 35,000 people, so those hotspots could get overloaded quickly.

Eventually they landed on building their own infrastructure, and even though the project started to help with distance learning, the end goal was to get the whole neighborhood on the network. The Kerner Medical Campus and Cardenas Grocery were added to the network as they are both central places in the community, offering services and food. The county has also added backup generators to some of the buildings they own which have root access points, ensuring that even when there are rolling blackouts (which there often are as a way to prevent forest fires) the community has a way to stay connected and informed. 

Canal Wi-Fi has proven extremely popular among residents, demonstrated by the almost-5,000 connections it has managed for neighborhood residents during the month of March 2021 alone, shown above (see a high-resolution image at the bottom of this story).

Trujillo also said that the city is 20 months out from having two more buildings with root access points, which will increase the resiliency of the network while expanding its reach and penetration. Both buildings require some construction to eventually open as a space to provide services and housing to individuals experiencing homelessness. So, in addition to making the network stronger, the expansion will provide free Wi-Fi to folks experiencing homelessness so that they can communicate with loved ones, seek employment, and get connected to more services. 

While the city has been focused on building this new network, it has also been seeking more information on digital literacy and equity as well. Over the summer, the city of San Rafael surveyed the residents of the Canal neighborhood and learned that 57 percent did not own a computer, with 44 percent saying it was hard to connect to the Internet at home. 

Daniel Soto, a former data analyst in the San Rafael City Manager's office, is currently getting his Master’s degree in Public Administration and helping the city run a study to explore digital equity among its residents. Right now, he is collecting data by conducting surveys. He spent the first few weeks in March knocking on doors and handing out flyers. 

“There have been some folks that have totally embraced me and this topic and this study, like, ‘Oh, I’ll fill this out right away,’’ Soto told us. “I’ve had other folks who have shooed me away … it’s been totally mixed.” He continued:

I hypothesize that the people of color, the folks in the Canal Neighborhood and the older folks will have lower digital literacy skills than others…The city has generally observed the disparities, all kinds of disparities, but I think that the survey will be really important, because I’m anticipating statistically significant data and findings that will compel the city to act.

It’s likely that Soto will be proven right, with the digital skills gap in communities of color a particular emphasis of research and advocacy organizations. The graph above shows that the majority of connections during peak morning and evening hours are for work and school, with Canal Wi-Fi fielding at times more than 1,000 simultaneous connections (see a high-resolution image at the bottom of this story). 

Soto is hoping to have the results of his study available to share at the end of May, which should shed further light on current use and the challenges that remain. 

The Home Stretch in Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the non-profit Meta Mesh has teamed up with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, local school districts and a number of other community stakeholders to launch a pilot project that aims to provide free Wi-Fi across three neighborhoods: Homewood, New Kensington-Arnold, and Coraopolis. 

The project is called Every1online, and they are aiming for 50/25 Megabit-per-second (Mbps) service to 450 families with students. 

In February, Meta Mesh announced Sam Garfinkel as the Interim Executive Director, moving from her previous position of Development Coordinator.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made the stakes for bridging the digital divide higher than they ever have been. This growing problem demands a comprehensive and compassionate solution. Meta Mesh Wireless Communities is poised to become Pittsburgh’s last-mile solution for those in need, providing Internet connectivity that is tailor-made to each community. Meta Mesh will always work to make sure our neighbor has equitable  access to the Internet,” Garfinkel said in the press release

Deploying fixed wireless hardware in a city like Pittsburgh is difficult and fraught with all sorts of challenges, from finding structures tall enough to establish clear lines of sight to negotiating access with owners. Meta Mesh has continued to navigate these while working to ensure upcoming service to as many households in its target neighborhoods as possible. Thus far it continues to rely on the Cathedral of Learning, a water tower, a cellular or radio tower, and potential apartment buildings. Garfinkel noted in a recent interview that she believes Meta Mesh is still on track for success.

“The pilot year is more just giving us time to demonstrate what we are capable of,” Garfinkel said. “The way our model is, the end user won’t ever receive a bill for this, so it’ll always be free to them. We are allowing this pilot year [not only] for our own sakes but to demonstrate to our anchoring community partners that it works and it’s worth it to their community.”

For more on how the San Rafael network came together, listen to Christopher talk with Rebecca Woodbury and Air Gallegos on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast below.

Header image of Mission San Rafael Arcángel, San Rafael CA, a short distance north of the Canal Neighborhood, from Wikimedia Commons by user MARELBU via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Network metrics and graphs from the Canal Wi-Fi webpage, here.