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How One City Built a Wi-Fi Network During a Pandemic

Officials in the San Rafael’s tech shop were able to build a mesh Wi-Fi network to connect students with the help of volunteer expertise and funding from across sectors.

San Rafael is in the process of launching a new mesh Wi-Fi network for one of its most densely populated neighborhoods, doing so as a response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The overarching goal is to ensure that residents there — particularly students — are able to get online.

Officials say that the new network, which the city and its collaborators started building from scratch when the virus broke out in March, will reach roughly 2,000 students, who may need the connectivity to attend school come fall, depending on the status of public space reopenings. This mesh Wi-Fi network came together quickly as a result of collaboration among public and private funders, volunteer expertise from the community, and government officials.

Mesh Wi-Fi is a network that uses largely the same routers and other equipment that people have in their homes, affixing several of them to streetlights and other public structures to spread coverage through an area. The way San Rafael’s will work is that several route access points will be built — with physical protection from the elements — atop streetlights, pump stations, and some apartment buildings that are owned by a local nonprofit organization, said Rebecca Woodbury, director of digital service and open government for San Rafael. 

While getting more residents in the area connected had been a government priority for some time, Woodbury said that when the pandemic confined people to their homes, it emphasized the importance of accessible Internet to more stakeholders in the area.

The project began when a volunteer from the community told Woodbury that a mesh network could be built for the Canal Neighborhood in a relatively short period of time for $250,000. Woodbury was able to get the project funded through cross-sector partnerships, with $125,000 coming from Marin County and $125,000 coming from the Marin Community Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization.

“We immediately had funding and a bunch of expertise I didn’t have internally,” Woodbury said. “It was amazing. At the beginning of quarantine, if you would have told me I was going to help build a mesh Wi-Fi network, I would have just stared at you.”

She said she hopes the network will be live by the end of the month, with all the plans finished and approved, leaving equipment installation as all that’s left. Officials are also hopeful that this will be the first phase of a larger project to get fast, reliable broadband into more households.

“Even before the coronavirus, we had a digital equity issue,” Woodbury said. “We still had a bunch of kids in this (Canal Street) neighborhood doing their homework on smartphones, relying on data plans and Internet at Starbucks. The crisis exacerbated it and highlighted it in a way that made it so clear in everyone’s minds.”

This article was originally published by Government Technology, Techwire’s sister publication.

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology magazine. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas.