Dorothy Johnson and her three sons once had to use her smartphone, borrow a relative’s computer or go to the public library in order to connect to the Internet and complete school assignments.
Johnson is a single mother who lives in Richmond and works in Emeryville, making it difficult to run her kids out to the library, she said. Using a smartphone for school assignments was tough and used up data, she added.
Then about a year ago, a local non-profit focused on helping families in central Richmond, Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative (BBK), stepped up with a computer and hotspot device as part of a plan to wire underserved areas of the city. For her sons, having their own computer and wireless connection is “very convenient, because when they have homework they can be at home in the safety of their home,” Johnson said.
Johnson and her sons, Leteur, 16, Keyshawn, 13, and Cyncere, 5, are pioneers in a city now trying to extend wireless coverage to more of its underserved citizens. According to BBK, in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, one in three people currently do not have access to the Internet at home.
However, the City of Richmond and the West Contra Costa Unified School District are working to change that, and bring free Wi-Fi to residents of the Iron Triangle. Richmond is joining other cities like New York City, San Francisco and San Jose to supply residents with free public Wi-Fi.
But in this case, “free” isn’t really free to Richmond and its benefactors. The effort requires the city to build a fiber optic network, and that’s expensive.
Chevron Corp. is providing $1 million toward the project, as part of the community benefits portion of the energy company’s refinery modernization project. The money will be doled out over three years.
Finding additional funding to expand the wireless access beyond the Iron Triangle has been a challenge, said Sue Hartman, the information technology director for the city. To expand beyond the Iron Triangle, city officials estimate the total cost of additional fiber, hardware and wireless services could run as much as $3 million to $4 million.
One million dollars is “not a lot of money when you’re talking infrastructure building, fiber and deployment of Wi-Fi equipment,” Hartman said. That amount is estimated to pay for purchasing and installing Wi-Fi antennas for 2,000 homes in the Iron Triangle neighborhood.
“The City of Richmond faces the challenge to bridge the digital divide in the underserved areas of the city, and the Iron Triangle was clearly identified in 2014,” Hartman said. “It was not equitable or fair for our community to not be able to get to the Internet.”
But without Internet access, families cannot easily search for jobs, pay bills or get fast access information about their children’s education online.
Many households still need computers or tablets to make their access complete. That’s where the school district comes in. West Contra Costa has a plan to provide each student in the district with a tablet. At the same time, they are working to complete their own fiber network. Mary Phillips, the chief technology officer for the school district, said providing reliable, fast Internet at schools was a crucial first step.
“It always sounds really appealing to put tablets out there—and then all of a sudden everybody’s miserable because there’s no infrastructure to support them,” Phillips said. “So we knew that we needed to increase the bandwidth.”
This effort is partly what prompted the city’s efforts. Students who do not have access to wireless Internet at home would be disadvantaged once schools start using the tablets for everyday lessons and homework, Philips said.
Over the past two years, Building Blocks for Kids, also gave computers to hundreds of families in central Richmond. The nonprofit regularly holds workshops to teach people how to use that technology.
In 2014, BBK published a study showing that many residents from underserved neighborhoods in Richmond had limited access to the Internet and almost half did not own a working computer.
BBK is partnering with the city to apply for grants and additional funding, but grants for such projects are scarce, said Jennifer B. Lyle, the group’s executive director. The organization recently applied for a Google grant to help the city’s project, but it was denied.
“This commodity is incredibility overpriced. It’s ridiculous that so few people have access to Internet in their homes,” Lyle said.
Residents of the Iron Triangle do have some options for low-cost Internet. BBK has helped many families purchase a T-Mobile Hotspot device, a cheaper option than getting Internet through Comcast, AT&T or other large companies. Comcast offers low-cost Internet access to families that qualify for free-and-reduced lunches at schools. But Lyle said families who tried the program experienced slow connections and poor customer support when issues arose.
The city will build off of the school district’s fiber network in constructing its network. Internet Archive, a San Francisco based nonprofit, will provide the actual Internet service or bandwidth, through a tower it has placed in Richmond. Households will need special antennas in order to access the signal. Internet Archive undertook a similar project in San Francisco, providing Wi-Fi to residents in public housing.
“The thing that’s not free is building it out, the actual construction work for the antennas,” Phillips, the school’s IT chief, said. “That equipment’s not free.”
Hartman, from the city’s IT department, said the city is also considering partnering with local businesses. City officials have spoken to the 23rd Street Merchant’s Association about placing antennas on top of some buildings. This would broadcast the Wi-Fi signal to the business itself and the area around it.
Once the city and school district complete the projects, officials hope students will have access to reliable wireless Internet at school and at home. Everyone involved agrees that the biggest challenge they face is finding more funding to expand the project and benefit more of the community.
“It’s not easy to create systems or places where you can make this broadly available,” BBK’s Lyle said. “Even if we do get Internet up, we still need to make sure people have computers and equipment. So I’d say all of it’s been challenging.”
For Dorothy Johnson and her sons, these efforts to bridge the digital divide have been a game changer. Johnson said it’s nice that the city and schools are realizing that Internet access is becoming a necessity, rather than a luxury. Her sons recently used their computer to write book reports for history class. Johnson likes that they can easily look up the meanings of new words they’re learning.
But a mother’s work is never done. Now, Johnson said, she’s working on getting a printer.