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...Read more