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