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A voice of one’s own

The fledgling free wire mesh Wi-Fi network in Olneyville is expanding its reach, healing the digital divide for more than 2,000 households

Photo courtesy of Kate Bramson, ONE Neighborhood Builders

The wire mesh infrastructure for ONE Neighborhood Builders' free Internet system atop the building at 255 Manton Ave. The system is expanding its network to reach a total of 2,000 households in Olneyville, thanks to $155,000 in new grants.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/13/21
The expansion of the free, wire mesh WiFi network in Olneyville is the story of how a community development corporation created a vital communications infrastructure to give neighborhood residents access to broadband services, a voice of their own.
How much money is the state of Rhode Island willing to invest in replicating the free WiFi wire mesh system in Olneyville in other communities and neighborhoods where the unmet needs are greatest? What is the current status of telehealth metrics in Rhode Island, measuring the health outcomes in underserved communities? In a time of growing isolation as a result of the continuing stresses of the pandemic, how can counseling and outpatient services around behavioral health and mental health be deployed in a more equitable, connected fashion? How has the ongoing “sleep-in” at the State House, led by state Sen. Cynthia Mendes, changed the dynamics around emergency housing issues?
Each month, it seems, like clockwork, there are new additions to the growing list of online newsletters from different advocacy groups, providing access to the news content that such groups wish to shape and sculpt, promoting their own agendas.
The trend signifies not only the growing frustration of the “lack” of news content in traditional news outlets, with newspapers and TV networks now being owned by private equity conglomerates, but also the power of social media networks – from Facebook [Meta] to Twitter to Instagram to influence how buying choices and political choices get made.
The disruption of the Governor’s news conference by a distraught woman illustrated how difficult it is, in these increasingly conflicted times, to have one’s voice heard – and to have people paying attention and listening to what you are saying.
Our own personal stories are still the most valuable possession we own, and sharing those stories is what makes us human. Part of the equation is learning how to listen to others, rather than becoming consumed in talking at others, seeing the world as an extension of ourselves – and our own personal agendas.
The lyric from Bob Dylan comes to mind: Advertising signs they con/you into thinking you’re the one/that can do what’s never been done/that can win what’s never been one/meantime life outside goes on/all around you.

PROVIDENCE – One if by land and two if by sea. That was the way that the midnight ride of silversmith Paul Revere was memorialized in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the start of the American Revolution in April of 1775, written nearly five decades after the original event.

No matter that it was William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, not just Revere, who successfully sounded the alarm for the farmers who stood their ground against the British soldiers in Lexington and Concord, Mass., where the Redcoats were coming to seize arms and munitions.

But who will memorialize the story of the revolutionary Wi-Fi wire mesh network built out by ONE Neighborhood Builders in the fall of 2020, in response to the needs identified in a survey of neighborhood residents during a time of pandemic, connecting more than 1,000 households to free Internet access?

The free Wi-Fi wire mesh network, known as ONE|NB Connects, is now poised to begin construction of Phase Two of its connective system, building out the infrastructure in order to serve an additional 1,000 households in Olneyville, bringing the total number of households served to approximately 2,100.

The expansion is being funded by $155,000 in new grants – up to $125,000 from the state through a Community Development Block Grant investment announced recently by Gov. Dan McKee, and an additional $30,000 from Harbor One Foundation.

Construction of the expansion is scheduled to begin on Jan. 10, 2022, according to Antonio A. Rodriguez, the Assistant Director of Asset Management at ONE Neighborhood Builders. Initially, the build-out of the wire mesh Wi-Fi network had been scheduled to begin on Dec. 13, 2021, but supply chain issues delayed the start of construction, as ONE|NB awaits the delivery of access point radios, tri-pod mounts and masts, and APC battery [backup battery unit] blocks.

“Free WiFi access is essential to bridging the digital divide,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE|NB, in a news release announcing the block grant award. “It’s essential for learning, working, socializing, and interacting with needed social services. This grant will go a long way toward improving the Internet access we now provide and expanding it to many others in our community.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healing the digital divide.”]

The current ONE|NB WiFi mesh covers the core residential area of Olneyville, which includes the D’Abate Elementary School, the Joslin Rec Center, Joslin Park, and Riverside Park. The area represents about two-thirds of all the homes in the .44 square miles that make up the Olneyville neighborhood, whose population is 6,933 residents. The network covers most of the affordable housing developed by ONE|NB in the neighborhood, according to a news release about the planned expansion of the project.

More money may be flowing the project’s way, with President Biden having signed the $1-trillion infrastructure bill into law. That plan includes $65 billion for broadband access nationally, with the potential to deliver more than $100 million directly to Rhode Island for that purpose.

Whether or not the revolution will be televised or broadcast on a streaming network – or even covered by the news media in Rhode Island, the building and expansion of a free Wi-Fi wire mesh network, affording residents of Olneyville Internet connections for free, is a huge game-changer for the neighborhood and its residents.

What the new, free, Wi-Fi wire mesh network has done is to give online access to people who have in the past been denied that voice. “Many of the residents of the neighborhood felt that they were excluded,” said Rodriguez, in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI. Nearly 50 percent of the residents surveyed before the project was built, Rodriguez continued, felt that “they had little or no access to reliable and affordable Wi-Fi or broadband service.”

Moving ahead, there are plans being discussed to consider scaling up and replicating the innovative network into other neighborhoods of the city and in other communities across the state, Rodriguez said, which will give people the opportunity to have a voice and to become active participants in the online marketplace of ideas, health care, education, and commerce around them.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Antonio A. Rodriguez, the Assistant Director of Asset Management at ONE Neighborhood Builders, discussing the economic promise of an engaged, connected community.

ConvergenceRI: That is great news about being able to expand what is going on with the wire mesh Wi-Fi network in Olneyville.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it is really good news that we got the CDBG [community development block grant] money.

ConvergenceRI: I saw an announcement by the Governor about money being made available to expand wireless, separate from your announcement. Was that the same thing, or was that different?
RODRIGUEZ: No, it was one and the same. The $1.7 million in the Governor’s announcement contains the “up to $125,000” that we requested. As far as I understand it, our block grant is for the “up to $125,000” – that is what we are receiving.

The only thing that I can add to that is that, with the Build Back Better plan, if Rhode Island gets any of the piece of the pie, if you will, for broadband expansion, I am sure that we will apply for whatever funds are available, once that money becomes open to the public.

ConvergenceRI: Are you in charge of this effort?
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it is one of my responsibilities. I oversee the implementation, oversight, and everything in between.

ConvergenceRI: When did you start doing that?
RODRIGUEZ: Let’s see. I took over in July and August of 2020, taking [charge] over the conceptual conversations through to the implementation of the actual project.

ConvergenceRI: As I understand it, the project was responding directly to what the community was telling you it needed. That you did a survey, and people responding to the survey said that lack of access to affordable Internet services was one the greatest needs. Is that accurate?
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it was one of the greater needs that were identified, among a few others.

ConvergenceRI: And, you were able to put this together: you “invented” a Wi-Fi network for Olneyville?
RODRIGUEZ: Essentially, we went from brainstorming to about a six-and-a-half week construction schedule, if you will, and we were live by the day before Thanksgiving [in 2020]. It was pretty hot and fast, if you will.

ConvergenceRI: The latest statistics that I saw were that there were about a thousand families participating in this Wi-Fi network. Is that accurate?
RODRIGUEZ: We are at about 1,000 households. There is a distinction between households and unique users. A unique user is any single device that is connected to a network. As an individual, if you have your phone, your tablet, your laptop, your TV, and maybe another device, that is one household, but that is five unique users in the household. Does that make sense?

ConvergenceRI: That makes a lot of sense. It seems as if you have developed a project that could be scaled up across all of Rhode Island, to various different corridors of “un-served” communities, if you had the money to do so.

ConvergenceRI: It seems like this might work extremely well in parts of Pawtucket, in Central Falls, in other parts of Providence, and perhaps in other areas, such as West Warwick or Woonsocket or Westerly. Is that accurate?
RODRIGUEZ: This is something that is scalable, and it is replicable. Obviously, the nuance gets into the nitty-gritty details. But it is something that is replicable.

One of the more exciting parts [of this project] is being able to summarize this whole endeavor into a case study, which we have a few drafts of. I am not sure what version of the case study exists to date.

But that was one of the good parts about putting that [case study] together. We were really able to capture how we got from Point A to having a WI-Fi Mesh Network, and capturing some of the ongoing [issues] a year later.

We just passed, two weeks ago, a year that we have had the system [up and running]. It has felt like much longer, because there have been so many lessons learned in that year.

But, it is also good to have that document, that summary, because you can literally share that with other individuals and groups who are thinking about doing it.

What we are thinking about, more long term, is the possibility we can try to provide consultation services through myself, or one of our partners who helped us do it, to help other people replicate it in their neighborhoods.

ConvergenceRI: You are relatively small, you are homegrown, if that is the right phrase to describe it; you are indigenous to your neighborhood. At what point does someone like Cox or Verizon push back and say, “We don’t want you doing this,” because you are perceived as cutting into their lucrative bandwidth?
RODRIGUEZ: Interestingly enough, they were at the door, as “the bouncer,” if you will, at the beginning of the project.

When we first got the funding and [became] committed that we were going to start the implementation of the mesh network, they reached out and asked us not to.

I don’t know what the conversation was, because it wasn’t had with me, but I know that they did reach out and ask us not to necessarily pursue this.

I think we have ignored it, and are continuing with it anyway. Another thing to add to that is that the fiber optic line that we use, which are part of those fiber optic lines that are shared with Cox, [are accessed through] OSHEAN, which has created the fiber optic highway [in Rhode Island.]

Cox has its own fiber optic line, but we are all under that same infrastructure. Cox has their lane that they rent, miles and miles; OSHEAN has over 500 miles of fiber optics. That is also where we tap in, so interestingly enough, we do, sort of, by extension, partner with Cox in some way.

ConvergenceRI: So, essentially, they have access to the same OCEAN fiber optic network?
RODRIGUEZ: They are, sort of, like laid down next to each other.

ConvergenceRI: But they cannot exclude you from access. Is that correct?
RODRIGUEZ: They cannot. We pay our licensing and access fees directly to the network, directly contracted through OSHEAN.

They couldn’t block us, from one business to another, if you will. But, I am sure that if they wanted to, at some point, with the influx of these types of projects, I’m sure at some point, the FTC or the FCC is going to get involved in updating what their regulations are. Because I think the only challenge that would send a red flag to Cox is if we raise our rate limit.

If we were to start to compete with their bandwidth speed, then I think, at that point, they will start to think that we are eating into their piece of the pie. But, until then, at the end of the day, I think we are only going to be supplementary, rather than we are [being seen] as a replacement of the Cox or Verizon services that are offered.

ConvergenceRI: To me, this is really revolutionary – you are providing a sense of empowerment to the community, in ways that they have been excluded. You are essentially giving voice to their ability to communicate with each other. And, that really can have profound consequences: you are giving voice to people who have been denied that voice. Is that overstating it?
RODRIGUEZ: That’s true. A lot of people – and, of course, it is a four- or five-year-old survey at this point, but during the time that we did do our survey, and the sample which we surveyed, if I remember correctly, it was about 47 percent of the individuals that were surveyed said that they had little to no access to reliable and affordable WiFi or broadband service.

It was a representative sample of the neighborhood, and for that many residents of the neighborhood to feel that they were excluded – and for us to serve them with this project, I think is pretty impressive.

ConvergenceRI: With your planned expansion, you intend to up your service to include 2,000 households, is that correct?
RODRIGUEZ: Yes. We want to double the number of households that the network is available to, growing from the 1,000 to the 2,000. And then, ultimately, we want to expand to other neighborhoods.

But, we are still in preliminary conversations about those [potential expansions]. I know that what I can share with you is that for Phase Two, which is the next phase we are embarking on, we are going to make some infrastructure backbone upgrades, and we are going to expand the mesh to serve some of the “dead spots” that we have identified over the past year.

And, we are also expanding the network to more houses in the neighborhood that it wasn’t previously available to.

ConvergenceRI: If you had a way to test out how you measure your “influence,” how would you come up with metrics to measure how this network has made a difference in people’s lives, what would those metrics be? Is it access to educational platforms? Is it access to health platforms?
RODRIGUEZ: Conceptually, the intention was to provide – because not only was there a response from the neighborhood, but obviously, in the times of COVID and the pandemic, a lot of people were isolated – so conceptually, we’d be increasing by a substantial amount that individuals in this area, in this ZIP code, in this neighborhood, had access to telehealth, distance learning, and employment services and training that have moved to a more Zoom-like or online platform.

And, [to enable people] to be able to pay some of their bills online. Because, in the pandemic, a lot of places shut down. If you have a local corner store that does Western Union, but that corner store closes, what do you do then?

Those are some of the metrics that we would be using, trying to measure those things. I think the difficult part in trying to set up the metrics is that we are still only a year in, and we have been navigating this, sort of like flying a plane while building it, if you will, and we haven’t had the opportunity to identify all those milestones.

We have some metrics in the back of our mind that we think would paint the picture, answering: Was this successful? Was this worthwhile?

I am sure there are things we are not yet thinking about in terms of the impact that we can capture. I am not a big data analyst or evaluation person, but we do have that capacity on staff, and she is working on putting some reports together, to try to see where we have come, as I said, it has been a little bit over a year,

So it is a good amount of data to look back on, and hopefully, we have identified some milestones that we can continue to track.

I’m not sure if it is in the press release, but we have made a five-year commitment to the neighborhood and to this project.

Between now and then, in 2024, we have to figure out: Are we going to continue to support this? Are we going to continue to fundraise for this? Or, is the city or the state going to take over and say: We’ll manage the oversight and maintenance and everything, as long as you guys agree to keep it on your buildings, available to your neighborhoods?

ConvergenceRI: That makes sense. What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that would like to talk about?
RODRIGUEZ: The only thing, call it a piece of news that I wanted to share with you, is that since they announced that we were getting up to $125,000 in the CDBG, we also got word this morning that Harbor One Foundation awarded us $30,000 in support of our expansion as well.

Altogether, we have $155,000 for Phase Two for the expansion. And, we also have a little bit more money available to us, from donations that we have gotten over the past year and a half.

It is exciting to know that the people we have relationships with through our work are donating to this effort. Our residents, our neighbors, our small business owners, they have made small donations, donating what they could. It speaks to the need in the community, the community identifying the fact that someone is offering them the service that they need, and they are willing to pay for a service that they know that they need and use. I think that it speaks for itself.


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