Tag: "nonprofit"

Posted March 18, 2021 by Sean Gonsalves

Born in Orono, Maine, the poet Frances Laughton Mace’s most notable verses were published in 1854 as a hymn entitled “Only Waiting.” Over a century and a half later, residents in her native town – and in the neighboring community of Old Town just four miles up the road – might be inclined to hum a line or two. Not because they are getting religion, but because of the wait in getting Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet connectivity.

After a decade of hopeful planning, disappointing setbacks, design work, and putting out multiple RFPs to move the project forward, the nonprofit OTO Fiber Corporation is on the verge of lighting up a six-mile fiber network this summer. With three miles of fiber deployed in Orono, a town of 11,000 residents and home to the University of Maine’s flagship campus, and the other half covering a portion of Old Town, the budding network will provide FTTH service to a limited number of residences and businesses in both towns. It’s a pilot project that, if successful, will serve as a core network which can eventually be extended to cover the entirety of both communities.

“It’s taken us forever to get to this point it seems. We started this process ten years ago and we are still slogging our way through while we’ve seen other communities zip ahead,” Belle Ryder, Orono Assistant Town Manager and President of OTO Fiber, told us this week. “It is really, really, really hard for communities relying on volunteers to pull off the feat of building and operating these networks.”

Ryder wasn’t complaining or exasperated. She was just being candid about the process she and her colleagues at OTO Fiber are committed to see through to the finish. The slog she is referring to goes back a decade when Orono was in the process of putting together a comprehensive development plan.

Families and Fiber, Fits and Starts

With just about half of the town’s population made up of college students living in off-campus apartments and the other half made up of residents 60 and older, “we really needed to draw families back,” Ryder explained. 

Old Town and Orono are right next to each other on the Penobscot River, 10 miles north of Bangor. Both communities...

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Posted March 11, 2021 by Sean Gonsalves

In the heart of Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the site of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln later delivered his famous 1863 Gettysburg address declaring “a new birth of freedom,” plans are being drawn up in the battle for better broadband.

In the borough of New Oxford, ten miles east of the county seat (Gettysburg), the non-profit media group Community Media of South Central Pennsylvania is leading the charge to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) victory for the approximately 102,000 residents spread out across the rural county’s 520 square miles.

But with restrictive state laws that protect incumbent providers from competition by not allowing municipalities to provide broadband service, and scarce funding for non-governmental entities to build broadband infrastructure, victory is far from certain.

Small Steps, Big Broadband Problem

The goal right now, Community Media’s Director of Operations Mark Wherley told us this week, is to secure $3 million to bring fiber access to 1,200 homes in New Oxford and Abbottstown, two of the 34 municipalities that make up Adams County, encircling Gettysburg.

Working in conjunction with the Adams County Economic Alliance, Community Media is looking to tap the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for funds to start building the network. Through RACP, Community Media would be eligible to receive between $1 million and $5 million, provided they are able to raise a 50 percent matching contribution.

“COVID kind of slowed us down in 2020, but we finished up the feasibility study toward the end of the year. We’ve been talking to local foundations to get the match. We have about 20 percent and are looking for the last 30 percent to execute the first phase of construction,” Wherley said, noting that if they are able to secure a total of $3 million it would pay for the initial network build. It would also...

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Posted November 23, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jennifer Hawkins, President and Executive Director of One Neighborhood Builders (ONB), a community development organization based out of Rhode Island. She talks about about the Olneyville neighborhood, situated on the west side of Providence, and how significant health disparities in that community led her organization to jump into action over the summer to build a free wireless network for the residents. Jennifer and Christopher talk about mapping the network, placing hardware on ONB-owned buildings, and putting up 12 access points to cover more than half of the community with robust wireless. She shares why the project’s been worth it, and the health outcomes they hope to achieve once it goes online. 

This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Don’t forget to check out our new show, Connect This!, where Chris brings together a collection broadband veterans and industry experts live on YouTube to talk about recent events and dig into the policy news of the day. 

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or ...

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Posted November 17, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

We’ve written a lot over the last half year about communities around the country that have built fixed wireless networks to bridge the digital divide. Most recently, we’ve seen approaches which look to tackle particular inequalities that fast, affordable Internet access can help to alleviate: in Providence, Rhode Island, for instance, nonprofit One Neighborhood Builders built a network to tackle health disparities among Olneyville residents.

Today we’re covering a project in Pittsburgh that confronts another aspect of the digital divide laid bare by the pandemic: communities where connectivity options exist and low-income programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials are available, but the minimum speeds offered are insufficient for households where multiple users need to work and attend school simultaneously. In a world where upload speed remains just as important as download speed, asymmetrical 25/3Mbps (Megabits per second) connections don’t cut it anymore. 

This is the problem that Every1online — a joint project by nonprofit Meta Mesh, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, two school districts, another nonprofit, and an array of local stakeholders — is looking to solve to get more than 450 families with students connected. They’ve built a fixed wireless system offering free connectivity to families across the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh as well as nearby New Kensington and Coraopolis via 50/25 Mbps connections in a pilot program that will run for the next year. It’s a move that acknowledges that providing low-cost Internet access pegged at the lowest possible bandwidth tier disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities already living under the weight of a host of structural disadvantages.

Much of the greater Pittsburgh area has access to one or more wireline providers. But the city also suffers from a wealth gap for a large chunk of the population, centered on families of color (the Homewood neighborhood in particular). While low-income options exist, they aren’t fast enough for entire households which have been forced to...

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Posted November 12, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

When the pandemic hit American shores this past spring and cities around the country began to practice social distancing procedures, Rhode Island-based nonprofit One Neighborhood Builders (ONB) Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins quickly realized that many of those in her community were going to be hit hard. 

As spring turned to summer, this proved especially to be the case in the Olneyville neighborhood in west-central Providence, where Covid-19 cases surged among low-income residents with fewer options to get online to work, visit the doctor, and shop for groceries. This, combined with the fact that the area suffers from an average life expectancy an astonishing eight years shorter than the rest of the state, spurred the nonprofit into action, and it began putting together a plan to build a free community wireless network designed to help residents meet the challenge. One Neighborhood Connects Community Wi-Fi hardware is being installed right now, with plans for the network to go online by Thanksgiving of this year. 

How it Came Together

When Jennifer Hawkins started looking for solutions to the lack of connectivity in the area in March, she ran into a handful of other communities likewise pursuing wireless projects to close the digital divide, including Detroit, New York City, and Pittsburg. Along with One Neighborhood Builder’s IT partner, Brave River Solutions, she explored options and ultimately decided a fixed, point-to-point wireless network could succeed in the neighborhood. This was in no small part because ONB owns 381 apartments, 119 single-family homes, and 50,000 square feet of commercial and community space across Olneyville. It meant that two of the primary obstacles to standing up a fixed wireless network cheaply and quickly — finding suitable hardware installation locations and negotiating Rights-of-Way — were nonexistent, and a fast, less expensive design and rollout was possible.

ONB contracted with regional communications systems integrator Harbor Networks to do mapping, engineering, and design the network, with ADT hired to do hardware...

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Posted November 9, 2020 by Christopher Mitchell

In a new essay published by the Nonprofit Quarterly, Christopher tackles the connectivity gap in the context of the ongoing pandemic and how it could be solved by a variety of proven nonprofit models that are already connecting tens of thousands of Americans efficiently to fast, affordable networks.  

See an excerpt below, but check out the whole piece over at the Nonprofit Quarterly:

One of the longest-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the lost education opportunities for millions of children. While the vast majority of children studying remotely are adversely affected, several million students have no home broadband Internet access at all. As a result, they have been extraordinarily disadvantaged. For too many, public schooling has effectively ended.

[S]omewhere between 15 and 41 million Americans cannot buy a reasonable broadband connection today because their home is not served by an ISP. Most, but not all, of these homes are in rural America, and we typically talk about this problem as being one of “access.” Tens of millions more Americans live in a location that’s served by an ISP, but they cannot afford the fees or face other barriers such as lacking a device or digital literacy. This problem is typically referred to as a lack of digital inclusion, or the digital divide, although these terms are often tossed around loosely.

There is no single policy to solve the broadband problems faced by the nation. In most cases, better networks and lower prices would really help, but achieving that would require different strategies in rural or urban areas. Challenges around literacy and online safety/security will be more difficult.

The answer then is the answer now: nonprofit business models. In a nation as large and varied as the United States, a single business model rarely meets everyone’s needs. Universal electricity required some 4,000 municipal electric departments and nearly 1,000 rural electric cooperatives. And it worked. Not because municipal networks and cooperatives are magical, but because they have the right incentives.

Cities face a greater challenge because the stakes are higher. Cable and telephone lobbyists have shaped rural broadband subsidy programs but see an existential threat in programs aimed at improving urban...

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Posted October 28, 2020 by Sean Gonsalves

Over the summer, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a new program to bring high-speed Internet service to the alarming number of households who do not have reliable access within the nation’s third-largest school district.

The initiative, referred to as Chicago Connected, aims to provide free high-speed Internet service to approximately 100,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. One of the ground-breaking features of the effort is that it includes funds to enlist the support of a number of Community Based Organizations to assist with enrollment in the program, digital literacy and skills development training.

At the end of September, during a virtual town hall meeting, Mayor Lightfoot said that while CPS was making progress connecting eligible families, they had not yet reached the goal.

“We’re not where we want it to be. And I think part of the difficulty is, even though it’s free, it’s about making sure that families feel safe in signing up,” Lightfoot said. “Currently, we have over 25,000 households that are signed up, and that is the equivalent of almost 38,000 students towards our goal of 60,000 households at 100,000 students.”

How It Works

Using a sponsored service model, Chicago Connected seeks to provide the high-speed connection for up to four years by directly paying for the service for eligible families. The program primarily relies on donations from philanthropic partners, CPS and city funds, with an additional $5 million from the CARES Act to fund the $50 million program. Donations, which includes a $750,000 commitment from former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, will cover the first two years, with CPS paying for the third and fourth years...

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Posted October 15, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Tens of thousands of homes, businesses, farms, schools, and community anchor institutions in the Sunflower State will see better connectivity options over the next few years. A recent executive order [pdf] establishing a Kansas Office of Broadband Development followed by the announcement of more than $49 million in grants to 67 projects around the state means a host of Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), fixed wireless, and institutional networks will break ground in the near future. The measure comes in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

A Broadband Office and Grant Program

The new Office of Broadband Development has been placed in the state’s Department of Commerce, and given the task of promoting networks of all kinds — municipal, cooperative, private, and nonprofit — as well as supporting regional initiatives, developing a better broadband map, and removing policy barriers to fast deployment. 

The state actually has two grant programs ongoing at the moment as part of the connectivity program approved the state’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce and the State Finance Council. The Broadband Partnership Adoption Grants (BPAG) are designed to help low-income Kansans pay for service with existing plans. The large pot of grant money just announced, on the other hand, is part of the Define Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG), which will use CARES funding to facilitate new builds between now and the end of the year.

It is heartening to see that there were no restrictions placed on application eligibility for CERG, and that municipal, cooperative, and other community-owned networks could apply for support. In places like Ohio, we’ve recently seen the establishment of a broadband grant program which explicitly bars municipal...

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Posted September 15, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

When school shut down past spring, Unit 4 schools in Champaign, Illinois scrambled to get students connected like everyone else. The district handed out Chromebooks and teachers went to work transitioning to online instruction so the school year could continue. But the district noticed that a large percentage of its students weren't logging on and the bulk of them came from Shadowwood mobile home park, where although fiber ran up and down every street in the neighborhood only one family subscribed to wireline Internet access. So Mark Toalson, the city’s IT Director, began making calls, and by the end of the summer a coalition came together to build Shadowwood’s students a free fixed wireless network which went online in August.

Fiber Just a Few Feet Away

The mobile home park sits on the north side of the town of 90,000, and is largely populated by Hispanic residents. Roughly 250 students who attend the Unit 4 school district live there, and according to Toalson not a single one had Internet access beyond personal mobile phones before they began last spring. In late May Mayor Deborah Feinen asked the city manager what could be done, and Toalson was asked to take on the project. 

Local circumstances make the Shadowwood Mobile Home Park a perfect case study in how efforts to bridge the digital divide need to tackle every facet of broadband gap to be successful. A $29 million grant in 2010 to bring Fiber-to-the-Home to the Urbana-Champaign-Savoy area meant that neighborhood had the infrastructure, but almost no one could afford the last-mile connection because of the high upfront costs. “We have fiber up and down every street in this trailer park, but they simply can’t afford to hook up to it,” city of Champaign Director of Information Technology Mark Toalson remarked in an interview. i3 Broadband, which owns and operates the infrastructure, normally costs $56/month (both in Shadowwood and without) and has been offering a $30 discount during the pandemic. It's a generous move, but moot for families who can’t pay to connect to the infrastructure sitting just below the street, a handful of steps away. So most of Shadowwood’s...

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Posted September 15, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed with stark clarity the impact of the digital divide across the country, and exacerbated the problem especially among the economically disadvantaged and in communities of color. With the onset of a new school year, school boards, city councils, and local governments have been distributing hotspots, equipping buses with Wi-Fi, and subsidizing subscription plans so that students can continue to learn over the summer. This week on the podcast Christopher talks with one community in California that took efforts to connect residents a step further.

Christopher is joined by Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael Director of Digital Services and Open Government, and Air Gallegos, Director of Education & Career for the nonprofit Canal Alliance, who together worked with a coalition of dedicated people to begin building a neighborhood-wide Wi-Fi mesh network over the summer in response to the pandemic, and connect one of the city’s most vulnerable populations: those living in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood. Christopher, Rebecca, and Air talk about how it all came together, the impacts it’s already having, and the forethought that went into the network. 

They discuss the city’s work and the participation of local volunteers who helped jumpstart the effort, and the pivotal role played by the Canal Alliance, which has been fighting digital divide in the neighborhood for decades. The group also discusses lessons learned, expanding the network to reach as many resident as possible, and the ways that the coalition has tried to ensure that San Rafael’s Wi-Fi Mesh network works not just for the Canal neighborhood now, but in the future.

For additional detail on the San Rafael project, see our earlier story.

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