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How San Rafael, Calif., Built a Wi-Fi Network During a Pandemic

Officials in the San Rafael tech shop were able to build a mesh Wi-Fi network to connect students in the dense Canal Neighborhood with the help of volunteer expertise and funding from across sectors.

Shutterstock/N.Vector Design
San Rafael, Calif., is in the process of launching a new mesh Wi-Fi network for one of its most densely populated neighborhoods, doing so as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. The overarching goal is to ensure that residents there — particularly students — are able to get online.

Officials say that the new network — which the city and its collaborators essentially built from scratch between now and when the virus broke out in March — will reach roughly 2,000 students, who may need the connectivity to attend school come fall, depending on the status of public space reopenings. This mesh Wi-Fi network came together quickly as a result of collaboration between public and private funders, volunteer expertise from the community, and government officials in the digital equity space acting as a convener.

First, for the unfamiliar, mesh Wi-Fi is a network that uses largely the same routers and other equipment that people have in their homes, affixing several of them to streetlights and other public assets to spread coverage through an area. The way San Rafael’s will work is that several route access points will be built — with physical protection from the elements — atop streetlights, pump stations, and some apartment buildings that are owned by a local nonprofit organization, said Rebecca Woodbury, director of digital service and open government for San Rafael. 

While getting more residents in the area connected had been a government priority for some time, Woodbury said that when the crisis confined people to their homes, it emphasized the importance of accessible Internet to more stakeholders in the area.

It started when a volunteer from the community reached out to her, saying he had heard the Canal Neighborhood was in need of Internet for students. The Canal Neighborhood is one of the most densely populated in San Rafael. It’s also a low-income area of a very affluent county in Northern California’s San Francisco Bay Area, making it home to many who work in the service industry and were thereby on the front lines of the crisis.

The community volunteer — who was granted paid time to work on community projects by his private-sector employer — told Woodbury a mesh network could be built for the Canal Neighborhood in a relatively short period of time, for the reasonable price tag of $250,000. Woodbury was able to get the project funded through cross-sector partnerships, with $125,000 coming from Marin County and $125,000 coming from the Marin Community Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that funds projects aimed at improving quality of life in that area.

“We immediately had funding and a bunch of expertise I didn’t have internally,” Woodbury said. “It was amazing. At the beginning of quarantine if you would have told me I was going to help build a mesh Wi-Fi network, I would have just stared at you.”

The network, she said, will hopefully be live by the end of the month, with all the plans finished and approved, leaving equipment installation as all that’s left. Officials are also hopeful that this will be phase one of a larger project to get fast, reliable broadband into more households in the Canal Neighborhood.

The way this network is designed, students will get priority access. There will also be an access portal for members of the community to go through that the city is planning to use to impart vital health information to more of its residents, something that simultaneously became more important and more challenging with the advent of COVID-19.

“Even before the coronavirus, we had a digital equity issue,” Woodbury said. “We still had a bunch of kids in this neighborhood doing their homework on smartphones, relying on data plans and Internet at Starbucks. The crisis exacerbated it and highlighted it in a way that made it so clear in everyone's minds.”

Omar Carrera is the CEO of the Canal Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to help the neighborhood and its large population of immigrants. He has been working on digital equity in the Canal Neighborhood for nearly 16 years, having previously worked with the group as a technology instructor.

Carrera said that over the years he has seen device ownership rates in the area improve as tech like smartphones and Chromebooks have become cheaper and more accessible. He has also seen tech skills improve among residents as those same devices have steadily become more intuitive, evolving quite a long way from the days of single color screens, no mouse and DOS. But the one piece that has remained a challenge is connectivity. 

The crisis underscored this to many stakeholders, who were able to reach out and talk to someone in the local government who was already doing digital equity work, which led to the fast convening and ultimate success of the project.

“Everybody did a lot to make this happen,” Carrera said, “but it was the leadership coming from our local government that made things that looked impossible happen.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.