Providence, Rhode Island Neighborhood-Wide Free Wi-Fi Network Gearing Up For Expansion

While the day after Turkey Day is one of carb hangovers and movie marathons for many Americans across the country, on that cold day in November 2020, for the Providence, Rhode Island-based nonprofit One Neighborhood Builders (ONB), it was a day of celebration. A seven-car parade rounded the streets of the Olneyville neighborhood spreading word of the launch of ONB’s network with a PA system announcing, “Free Wi-Fi!” to the community. 

Now, five months later, ONB has shown proof of concept and is ready to bring the network into its next phase of life. The next few months will be packed for ONB as it gears up to strengthen Phase I of the network, plans the expansion of a Phase II, and puts boots on the ground to energize the information campaign around the network. The nonprofit has been answering a flood of information requests from folks throughout the region considering bringing a similar mesh network to their own communities, and in response, it will also be putting together a case study for communities who might be interested in replicating its success. 

The Olneyville neighborhood in west-central Providence, Rhode Island has been a focus for the nonprofit since 1988. When the pandemic hit, all of the initiatives ONB was trying to address in Olneyville only became more apparent: from the surges in severe Covid-19 cases to the lack of supermarket options to the digital divide. One way ONB decided it could alleviate some of the impact of the pandemic was to set up a free mesh Wi-Fi network.

ONB was quick to act. They started fundraising in the summer of 2020 and the network went live in late November. The network covers roughly one third of all neighborhood households. 

“We were honking our horns with our balloons and people were like, ‘what the heck is going on?’ and looking out their curtains at us,” Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director of ONB, told us in an interview  “It’s just Covid times. Everything is so much more difficult.”

Spreading the Word

Not only did ONB hold a parade in the network’s honor in order to get the word out, they also have put out ads on the Spanish-language radio stations and have handed out bilingual pamphlets.

With the network covering about 1,000 households and around 200 unique users, ONB is embarking on an effort to increase trust and communicate the nonprofit’s goals. One of the biggest challenges with getting people online has been addressing whether or not this network is currently free (it is). The second has been privacy and data collection concerns in the community. But ONB is bringing in extra help to dispel some of the misconceptions about the network by getting out into the community and talking to people. 

“We’re going to build trust in the network, and I think that’ll allow us to increase our user count and overall, help us spread the word,” said Antonio Rodriguez Assistant Director of Asset Management at One Neighborhood Builders. “It works in practice and in theory, and people deserve the right to have Wi-Fi and access to the Internet just as much as they deserve to have water and electricity.”

Preparing for Expansion

In addition to these efforts, ONB just got a portion of funding to start Phase II from a private foundation. The non-profit hopes to have the project funded by the end of May.  

One option the group is considering is an expansion that would bring the network to a Providence Housing Authority (PHA) Development to the west of another ONB development on the corner of King and Salmon Streets. The expansion would include more than 300 units housing around 1,000 residents. 

“It would be pretty exciting to offer that to such a large development. I mean, if you think about it in relation to what we have in Phase I, Phase I covered about 1,000 households. So, even if it was one person per household, we’re talking about a third of the coverage [with] one hop into a development. So, that’s pretty impressive,” Rodriguez said.

One challenge presented by this expansion is that ONB would be working with PHA and HUD on right of way and access to the building for regular maintenance, whereas with Phase I, all of the installations were overseen and maintained by ONB and within ONB’s own housing developments. 

Another challenge is that the geography near the PHA development is not as flat as the rest of the network and the buildings are all brick, which means they would be harder to penetrate. In order to combat that, ONB would need to install multiple radios both on the exterior and interior of the buildings, with the interior equipment being at every level of each building. 

Rodriguez said while this part of Phase II would be different, addressing these challenges would just be a matter of setting meetings and site visits to come to an agreement about the best way to proceed. 

As far as strengthening the current network, Rodriguez hopes to have a heat map updated in the near future to quantify its strengths and weaknesses. This will guide where ONB will put resources to try to improve the network. The organization will make enhancements by plugging gaps and increasing performance in the connectivity, latency and range of the network, however “the range increase is dependent on follow up site visits and the heat mapping survey,” Rodriguez said in an email.

“One of the things we have to be mindful of as we make upgrades is making sure we don’t overstretch our mesh and make it inconsistent because that’s how we’ll inadvertently lose people, if it’s not reliable,” Rodriguez said.

In Phase I, ONB installed two lateral fiber lines feeding hubs with 12 access points which required 25 repeater radios fixed atop their buildings. Phase II requires a hub using leased capacity on fiber from an existing ISP to be installed and an additional 10-12 radios, depending on where they are placed and the line of sight that exists between them.

Excluding the PHA development from the expansion, Rodriguez said Phase II of the network could cover 150-250 more households. Including PHA, the expansion could reach 350-500 additional households.

ONB is aiming to start building Phase II by the end of May.

Passing on the Knowledge

After the successful launch of their network, ONB has received several inquiries about how to replicate the work this team has done. Communities across the country are trying to put up gap networks to address the lack of connectivity during the pandemic, and others in the region are looking to ONB as an example of how to get something up quickly and reliably. 

“We’ve been really inundated with information requests from colleagues locally and regionally on, you know, ‘what exactly you did, how did you do this, what does it mean for a nonprofit to be an Internet Service Provider for a neighborhood?’” Hawkins said. “We want to kind of memorialize our process and our learnings, and so, we’re putting together a case study,” Hawkins said. 

In an effort to understand better the needs of the community, ONB has been working on a capture portal where users will be asked a few questions about why they are using the network before they log on. While the portal will only prompt these questions annually, initially, there was some concern, given the hesitancy in the community around data collection. 

“At this point, with our numbers being so low and us wanting to increase it, I think it’s well worth the risk for us,” Rodriguez said. “It’ll give us the analytics and the data - plus we will be able to use it in our case study - to make changes and adapt our network as needed.”

Rodriguez and Hawkins expressed hope in the future that with an increase in users and the case study, the city of Providence or the state of Rhode Island can take over overseeing the network in the long term. 

For more on how the effort came together, listen to Christopher talk with ONB Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins in Episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below.

Images courtesy of One Neighborhood Builders