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California City Outlines Wi-Fi Plan to Boost Connectivity

San Rafael, Calif., has released a plan for a community Wi-Fi network in the Canal area to address longstanding digital inequities that have become more glaring since the coronavirus outbreak.

by Will Houston, The Marin Independent Journal / May 12, 2020
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(TNS) — San Rafael, Calif., has released a plan for a community Wi-Fi network in the Canal area to address longstanding digital inequities that have become more glaring since the coronavirus outbreak.

Omar Carrera, executive director of the Latino immigrant and family services nonprofit organization Canal Alliance, said the plan is the first major step taken by the city since he began pitching a more expansive broadband program for the Canal area 15 years ago.

While the new Wi-Fi plan does not reach the scale of his vision to serve 10,000 residents with community-catered services, Carrera said it would begin to address the existing “crisis within a crisis.”

“We are not just building a solution that only focuses on the short term,” Carrera said. “I think the recommendation from the city is really to build the foundation that has scalable infrastructure that would allow us to expand the capacity to support the entire community. That should be the goal.”

The community Wi-Fi project is still in design, but would seek to create a web of 20 Wi-Fi access points on street lights served by three root locations spread throughout the neighborhood. The design would have capacity to serve 500 users at a time, according to the city.

Students and residents would be able to tap into the network for free to access a limited set of services and websites needed for education and critical government services such as public health information, unemployment and food stamps.

Proponents aim to have the system set up and running by mid-June.

The purchase and installation of equipment is expected to cost about $190,000, with an ongoing cost of $55,000 per year, according to Rebecca Woodbury, the city’s digital services director. Who would be responsible for paying that ongoing cost has yet to be decided, she said.

As proposed, the Wi-Fi network would be administered through the county’s existing Marin Information and Data Access Systems network, known as MIDAS.

Javier Trujillo, the county’s chief assistant director of information services and technology, said MIDAS is used by local jurisdictions throughout the county to access shared applications and internet services.

The Canal Wi-Fi network would be a “simple” addition to the countywide MIDAS network, Trujillo said, and could be mimicked in other parts of the county.

“We’re dealing with a multi-pronged approach to help students in schooling,” Trujillo said. “If this proves to work like we believe it will and the design is viable and financing is sustainable, I think many areas of the county could benefit from a similar model.”

Under the plan, students would be given credentials to access a high bandwidth Wi-Fi network where they would be able to access teacher’s video lessons, websites other educational services. About 2,000 school-aged children reside in the Canal neighborhood, according to the city.

Lower bandwidth Wi-Fi service would be available to Canal residents to use to apply for social services programs and access government services. This service would not require credentials.

The county, in coordination with San Rafael City Schools and other partners, would be able to filter which websites students and residents could access, Trujillo said.

There are limitations under the current plan, but room for expansion, Woodbury said. For instance, Wi-Fi service would be strongest for residences facing streets because they will be closest to the access points, Woodbury said.

“Over time, we can scale this and scale it pretty quickly,” Woodbury said. “I think a critical next step is working with property owners on potentially installing access points inside buildings.”

While the Canal Alliance, city, county and other partners have been brainstorming solutions to the neighborhood’s digital divide, little progress and few meetings had taken place since late 2018, in part due to a city intern vacancy.

The coronavirus pandemic, in particular the need for students to access class at home through the internet, acted as a catalyst for planning efforts.

Where before project proponents were discussing long-term plans, within weeks they developed a plan outline with the help of David Cooper, chief engineer of Marin IT, and Lionel Florit of Cisco Systems.

“Once I had these two volunteers doing this pro bono, I thought we could actually pull this off,” Woodbury said. “It just started to snowball.”

The Wi-Fi mesh is meant to be just one part of a larger solution to the existing internet access issues.

San Rafael City Schools has already acquired 450 mobile hotpots and distributed close to 200 to families, school sites and libraries, said Chief Technology Officer Sarah Ashton. The district has distributed about 2,700 Chromebook laptops to students in the past month and a half.

Additionally, the district has been helping families apply for Comcast’s low-income broadband internet plan, known as Internet Essentials.

Each of these steps has limitations, Ashton said, with the mesh Wi-Fi network being an option to provide internet for residents and families that fall between the gaps.

While the internet hotspots are a temporary solution, access to adequate internet and devices has been a persistent problem in the Canal, with the Wi-Fi network providing one method to address it, Ashton said.

“Just because things move back into a more stable situation, I think that the need will still be there to make sure that all students have access to stable internet at home,” Ashton said.

The majority of families in the Canal are low-income and about a quarter are below the poverty level, according to a 2015 UC Berkeley study. More than 70% of the residents have a high school degree or less, the study states.

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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