Wi-Fi to the rescue as governments react to COVID pandemic

Improvisation and partnerships are the name of the game, municipalities struggle to provide wireless internet access to those who don't have it but need it.

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State and local governments are working overtime to provide Internet service to all who need it during the pandemic, pushing out a range of ad hoc projects designed to keep members of their communities connected.

With Internet access ever more crucial in the age of social distancing, it seems clear that COVID-19 has deepened the digital divide – less well-off Americans are less likely to have the kind of reliable home Internet connection that they will need in order to work remotely, access important government services and stay in touch with family members.

Some local governments, however, are working to close the gap.

Buses become Wi-Fi hotspots

Improvisation and flexibility are watchwords for the government workers putting these projects together. In Sacramento, chief innovation officer Louis Stewart took advantage of Sacramento Regional Transit District buses idled by a lack of riders to create large, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, dubbing it the Wi-Fi Bus program. Users can simply connect to the provided Wi-Fi network to get internet access via the Sacramento Public Library’s portal.

Buses were particularly well-suited to the task, as their size makes it easy for them to carry multiple access points while being taller than many trees and other obstructions that could interfere with Wi-Fi signals, he added.

The private sector is a key part of Sacramento’s effort, with Cradlepoint, Aruba, and Sierra wireless all contributing Wi-Fi access points and routers, and major mobile carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile offering wireless backhaul. It helped that, as the capital of California, Sacramento already had government affairs representatives from many companies locally situated.

“Honestly, once we got the first provider on board, it came down to the companies’ competitive nature to try and jump in and help to be part of this proof of concept,” said Stewart. “It ended up being fairly simple to do, we did in five weeks what would’ve ordinarily taken six months.”

The SacRT buses – Stewart said that there are 10 of them on the road as of the week of May 11 – work in “shifts” of roughly three hours at a given location before relocating or shutting down for the night. The most common locations are public parks, churches and schools. He added that, while some sites see as little as 16 users at once, more than 50 people came out to a recent session at one of the city’s libraries, and he expects to see a further uptick once public awareness of the Wi-Fi Bus program spreads.

Repurposing mobile Wi-Fi for static deployment

Public awareness, in fact, tends to be a larger problem for these efforts than anything technical. In Albuquerque, technology and innovation department director Brian Osterloh said that the biggest hurdle to the city’s Wi-Fi On Wheels program has been marketing.

“It’s difficult to tell someone to go to a website to learn about getting access if they can’t get to a website,” he points out. “We knew we would run into that to some extent, but we didn’t know how chronic it would be.”

One avenue the program has explored to help get the word out about its own bus- and van-based mobile Wi-Fi hotspots is the school system, said Osterloh. Schools have robocall systems that can be used to quickly contact parents in case of emergencies, as well as marquee signs.

Albuquerque’s Wi-Fi On Wheels works in more or less the same way as Sacramento’s Wi-Fi Bus. Workers mount access points on municipal buses and paratransit vans that provide individualized rides, and T-Mobile provides cellular uplinks for backhaul to the internet. The vehicles are positioned in parking lots at schools, churches and other natural gathering places so that members of the community in need of Internet connectivity can drive up and connect. The city has created static public Wi-Fi points, as well, taking additional Cisco APs meant to provide connectivity for transit riders in normal times off of city buses and mounting them outside municipal buildings.

Making in-school internet available outside

Osterloh said the initial locations for Wi-Fi On Wheels were determined with the help of, once again, the city’s public school system. The thinking was that the most active meal pickup sites would likely be nearest to Albuquerque residents most in need of free Wi-Fi.

That’s precisely the approach that the Sioux City (Iowa) public school system took when planning out locations for its own mobile hotspot project. It’s a smaller-scale effort than those underway in Sacramento and Albuquerque, but the project’s three vans each make two three-hour stops per day in locations where it’s hoped they can do the most good.

As in other cities with mobile hotspot projects, Sioux City’s vans are equipped with a backhaul link to Verizon and standard Wi-Fi access points for connectivity.

The biggest hurdle to overcome in getting the vans rolling, according to Pritchard, was simply coping with the changing realities of running a school system in a pandemic.  The original plan for keeping students connected was to distribute portable cellular modems to students from an educational network service provider called Kajeet, but limited stocks of that equipment forced Pritchard and his department to improvise.

Sioux City is also opting to mount access points outside of school buildings, so that the parking lots there can be another option for those seeking Internet access.

Microsoft grant helps Washington State

Elsewhere, community Wi-Fi projects are taking place at the state level. Washington, for one, has partnered with the nonprofit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center to wire the outsides of buildings and parking lots throughout the state.

The director of the Washington State Broadband Office, Russ Elliot, thinks of the process as inverting the systems that are already in place.

“We need to turn that broadband inside out,” he said. The existing wired Internet connections serving the state’s schools and libraries are generally robust, he noted, so the priority is on giving the public – particularly in underserved, rural areas – access to that connectivity.

The ITDRC, aided by grants from Microsoft, has deployed sets of access points from Ruckus and Cambium to create large zones  - between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in diameter, according to Elliot – with accessible Wi-Fi near those public buildings. The project’s goal is to create 600 such locations across the state, and to organize them into a single, searchable database and digital map on the state’s website.

The project, Elliot said, almost didn’t happen. Other items, including PPE for frontline healthcare workers, had to take priority in the budget.

“We had to borrow, scrimp and save to get this off the ground, and it didn’t really take off until Microsoft stepped up,” he said.

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