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San Rafael, Calif., Preps Launch of Free Wi-Fi Network

More than 2,000 school children are expected to be able to access the network, and other residents will be able to access the network for services such as unemployment, rental assistance and info on new health orders.

WiFi Sign
(TNS) — The organizers of a free community Wi-Fi network in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood aim to launch it by the start of a distance-learning school year this month.

“Our ultimate goal is to do as much as humanly possible before Aug. 17, which is the first day of school,” said Javier Trujillo, Marin County’s chief assistant director of information technology.

More than 2,000 school children are expected to be able to access the network, proponents say. Other residents will be able to access the network for services such as unemployment, rental assistance and information on the latest health orders.

Omar Carrera, executive director of the Canal Alliance, said the network marks the beginning steps in addressing the longstanding issues of Internet access in the largely Latino community.

“I don’t think people realize what the digital divide looks like in the Canal,” Carrera said. “We are potentially facing a full year of distance learning and we have to continue doing more. We have to make sure we have full coverage for the entire neighborhood.”

The Canal neighborhood has long had a disparity in access to Internet services and necessary hardware compared to other regions of the county.

The divide is the result of several factors, including poverty, crowded housing and a lack of education, among others, according to Canal Alliance officials. Many of these issues have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, especially for students who are having to rely on inadequate Internet access for their education.

A recent survey conducted by the Canal Alliance of about 1,500 residents in San Rafael reflected the disparity. Of the 849 Canal residents who responded, 57% did not own a computer, compared to 10% of respondents who lived outside of the Canal. About 44% of Canal residents stated it was difficult to connect to the Internet and 42% had to wait for more than 10 seconds for a website to load or had to let a video buffer before watching it.

“Everything happening during COVID-19 is happening online,” said Air Gallegos, Canal Alliance education and career director. “We really are putting ourselves at risk if we aren’t allowing our community to have access to that information. For us, this is a huge project. It’s been an issue for decades. We need to see it resolved. Our real goal is to not just go back to the status quo but really rebuild something that is different and addresses equity in a brand new way.”

Luis Martinez, a 20-year Canal resident, counts his family among those struggling with poor Internet connections. Martinez and his wife have three kids who are in kindergarten, middle school and high school. The family pays about $70 per month for their Internet, which is often slow and unreliable, especially with more people having to use it, he said.

“But it’s a headache when the Internet fails and slows down,” Martinez said. “It’ll log the kids out of their Zoom class and they miss out key points of the lecture. They miss out on learning.”

Faster Internet speeds are available, but Martinez said the economic package they have is what they can afford. At the start of the pandemic, figuring out how to pay rent first was the priority. As a construction worker, Martinez said he is fortunate to be able to work again and their landlord is allowing them to defer rent payments. Still, he said, they continue to struggle.

“There are times where my wife tells me that my kids don’t want to attend online classes,” Martinez said. “It’s hard to motivate them because it’s different from what they are used to, and with inconsistent Internet it’s harder. They don’t sell us what they advertise.”

As the community Wi-Fi service rolls out, San Rafael and the Canal Alliance are planning to begin publishing tutorials on how to access the community network and provide training for residents who are not as tech savvy.

“Over the next couple of weeks, the project partners will be working on some promotional videos and getting the word out to the community,” said Rebecca Woodbury, the city’s digital services director.

Sarah Ashton, chief technology officer for San Rafael City Schools, said the district and other project partners will continue to augment Wi-Fi services using mobile hotspots and will be distributing Chromebooks for students. In addition, the district plans to work with the Canal Alliance to provide digital literacy training for Canal residents.

“We’ll be doing as much as we can to be set up for the school year and ensure students have access to devices for day one and access to the Internet,” Ashton said.

The community Wi-Fi network is being administered through the county’s existing Marin Information and Data Access Systems network, known as MIDAS. The network uses a web of 20 Wi-Fi access points attached to streetlights that are served by several root locations spread throughout the neighborhood. The network can serve about 500 users concurrently. As more equipment is secured, more users will be able to access it at the same time.

The mesh network does have its limitations. Residents living in apartment units closer to the street, for example, will have a better connection than those farther away. And the Wi-Fi network has a limited range, so not all students will be able to access it.

Trujillo said project managers are also seeking to work with property owners to install equipment on buildings to enhance the range of service.

“With every access point, with every fiber circuit installed, we will see the numbers grow,” Trujillo said. “Once we have all of the components in place we will augment to match usage and performance goals as funding allows.”

The purchase and installation of equipment is expected to cost about $190,000, with an ongoing cost of $55,000 per year. About $335,000 has been raised so far from the Marin Community Foundation, Marin County, the Pincus Family Foundation and private donations. The Cotati-based DC Electric Group Inc. is installing the equipment for free, according to San Rafael city staff.

Resolving the digital inequities in the Canal and other regions of the county is the responsibility of local government, Carrera argues.

“This is the responsibility of the local government and the ongoing costs of this program should be part of the annual budget,” he said.

Ultimately, the Canal Alliance hopes to expand service to about 10,000 residents and provide wired broadband service.

“It took us a while to get to this point and it’s just the beginning,” Carrera said. “I don’t want to create this misperception that we resolved the problem.”

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.