It’s rather surprising that despite the fact billions of dollars are about to be distributed to U.S. states from the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act for the purpose of closing the digital divide, there are no major government initiatives to establish community Wi-Fi in urban areas.
The only federal funds currently available to help people access Wi-Fi are through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides discounts for internet service to eligible low-income households. And there might also be a smattering of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) projects still getting funds for Wi-Fi.
In terms of ACP, one could argue that it benefits commercial ISPs almost as much as it does poor households because the federal subsidies allow service providers to sign up more subscribers and receive more total revenues.
Despite the lack of a national vision to provide Wi-Fi to close the digital divide, community Wi-Fi does exist in the U.S.
In locales ranging from New York City to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Jose, California, some municipalities have established Wi-Fi networks for the benefit of their citizens. And they seem to be successful.
What started out as projects to bring Wi-Fi to schools in Council Bluffs, Iowa and San Jose, California, turned into municipal Wi-Fi projects.
Michael Calabrese is director of the Wireless Future Project at the think tank New America. He said in both cities, the local school district initiated a mesh Wi-Fi network. (Check out this white paper for all the details about the projects).
After the schools initiated the projects, the cities became involved, offering free access to light poles and fiber backhaul in exchange for opening the network to all city residents as well.
“Council Bluffs already covers the entire town; and San Jose has been steadily expanding beyond the initial East Side Union High School district where it’s very well-established,” said Calabrese.
In both projects, the municipalities hired the vendor SmartWave Technologies.
SmartWave CEO Al Brown said the company has also done community Wi-Fi projects for San Mateo, California; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Hidalgo County, Texas. And it’s starting a project for East Moline, Illinois. It’s also working with the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The company places access points on streetlights and traffic signals, usually about 15-30 feet above ground level. And then for every three to five access points it has a backhaul point.
“The more fiber in the area the better,” said Brown. The SmartWave Wi-Fi equipment blasts the signals into nearby homes.
“In East San Jose, if you’re a student and you take home your Chromebook, we broadcast the same SSID at home as at school. It authenticates and routes back to the school’s firewall. We broadcast another SSID for the community and route that back to City of San Jose’s firewall."
Pushback from incumbents
Brown said municipalities typically reach out to SmartWave, rather than the other way around. And he doesn’t seem too concerned about pushback from incumbent operators, whether they’re wired or wireless providers.
In terms of the incumbents, he said it doesn’t make any sense for them to deploy networks where they’re not going to make a profit. But at the same time, cities have a responsibility to their communities.
“In our urban markets I see it [Wi-Fi] as an extremely attractive means to overcome the digital divide,” said Brown. “It’s not target rich for an A&T or a Verizon or a Comcast.”
He said the folks suffering from the digital divide in urban areas don’t have a lot of money, they don’t always have good credit and they’re digitally illiterate because they haven’t owned computers. But cities recognize that if children have access to the internet and computers they can raise themselves to higher income levels, which ultimately benefits the city.
“I look at this as something that every major city with these neighborhoods should consider,” said Brown. “We’re not talking about a service that really competes with service providers. Wi-Fi is a very cost-effective technology to meet the specific goal of getting people online.”
It should be noted that although Brown hasn’t encountered a lot of pushback from incumbent operators, there are places in the U.S. where cities are precluded from setting up communications networks.
Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21 at Carnegie Mellon University, told Fierce that government policies can set up roadblocks to smart city initiatives. She said in Pennsylvania, for example, community Wi-Fi is illegal because the city would be considered a competitor to the provider.
Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016 began an initiative for free Wi-Fi in the city, called LinkNYC. So far, LinkNYC has rolled out around 2,000 of its first-generation Wi-Fi kiosks, and now it’s working on the latest phase, called Link5G.
“Link5G is leveraging a public-private partnership to bring improved mobile cellular service, free high-speed public Wi-Fi, and neutral fiber to communities across the five boroughs, with a focus on equity that ensures underserved communities get online first,” said Nick Colvin, LinkNYC CEO, in a recent statement to Fierce.
But sometimes cities prefer ACP or programs like it, rather than community Wi-Fi.
In September 2022, New York Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a program, dubbed “Big Apple Connect,” to set up about 300,000 New York City Housing Authority residents with Wi-Fi and cable by the end of 2023 at no cost to them, according to the New York Daily News.
Altice and Charter will provide the Wi-Fi service, and the city will pay them $30 per month for every household they connect. It’s estimated this will cost the city about $30 million a year.
No one quite knows what will happen after the three-year contract with the service providers ends. Will residents then have to pay full freight for their broadband service?
Perhaps setting up community Wi-Fi infrastructure would have been a better investment for the long term.
One final note
Service providers have historically connected individual apartments or condos in multi-family dwellings. But that isn’t necessary. Brown said, “We’ve lit up a variety of public housing, like a seven-story high rise, installing access points down the hallway.”