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Wichita, Kan., Ponders Free Wi-Fi for Underserved Neighborhoods

If the idea takes root, the service could be piggybacked on 5G deployments in the region.

by Dion Lefler, The Wichita Eagle / September 26, 2018

(TNS) -- Wichita City Hall is contemplating providing free wireless Internet service in some of the community’s poorer areas to try to close a digital divide between rich and poor neighborhoods.

Service could be piggybacked on the deployment of so-called 5G wireless technology.

The city is planning to use 5G — 100 times as fast as current 4G Internet service — as a platform for a plethora of new technologies such as street-light synchronization, parking control, real-time monitoring of air and water quality, and ultimately even autonomous vehicles.

It’s part of a “smart cities” plan that the council was briefed on Tuesday.

Council member James Clendenin, who represents some poorer parts of south Wichita including the Planeview and Hilltop neighborhoods, raised the possibility of providing free Wi-Fi to low-income areas.

“Does this, or could this, move us forward to greater access to the Internet for the public via a public Internet system for those who don’t have access to that sort of technology, can’t afford it?” Clendenin asked.

“I think it can,” replied Mike Mayta, the city’s chief of information technology. “Cox provides I think like $10 a month (but) even $10 a month for some of our folks could be too much. That’s where I think we could do things like putting Wi-Fi on Westar poles to provide free Wi-Fi for some of those areas of town that need access.”

Cox and AT&T do provide Internet access for less than $10 a month to qualifying households, but qualifying can be difficult, especially for the working poor.

AT&T’s service is limited to households on SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. Cox service is available to participants in five types of public assistance programs, but the household must have a child in K-12 school to qualify.

Clendenin said he was encouraged by the answers he got at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I see day in and day out the information or technology gap in the poorer communities in Wichita,” Clendenin said. “We see it at our neighborhood city halls all the time. We see it at our library. That’s why we’re putting so many computers in the library.”

The city already provides free public Wi-Fi in limited areas, including Eisenhower National Airport and transit system buses.

Clendenin said he thinks extending free Wi-Fi to poorer neighborhoods is crucial to raising people out of poverty, now that so much of job training and job hunting has moved online.

“Go to Planeview and Hilltop,” he said. “It won’t be hard to find people who don’t have easy access to the Internet.”

Most council districts don’t have as large or deep pockets of poverty as southeast and northeast Wichita, but Clendenin said he thinks the other council members will value the whole city and not just their own districts.

“My hope is that every council member would realize that our city only performs as well as the least performing area,” he said.

The city has gone down the public Wi-Fi road before and it led nowhere.

City Hall put out a request for proposals in 2007, but the effort petered out after major providers declined to bid and the city learned of problems in other communities that implemented wireless broadband.

“Our pushback was we really didn’t have the technology at the time,” said Mayor Jeff Longwell, who was part of the earlier effort.

But a lot has changed in 11 years and Longwell said he could support starting to deploy Internet hotspots around town now where needed.

Mayta said if the council wants to make that a priority, he can get it done.

Kansas City has already deployed free Wi-Fi in about a 50-block area of its downtown, he said.

“Technically, I don’t think it would be difficult,” he said. “A lot of cities are doing something like that.”

©2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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