Harry Quiñones, of Providence, enjoys using the free WiFi offered through ONE|NB Connects, and it has helped him in caring for his mother. Photo by Stephen Ide, ONE|NB
By Stephen Ide
ONE Neighborhood Builders
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 meant a loss of access and an isolation people had never experienced before.
Schools shut down, forcing students to suddenly learn online. Public places shuttered, with employees working from home if they were able. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Telehealth visits with doctors became the norm. Shopping for basic needs meant ordering deliveries online.
For residents in Olneyville, an economically distressed neighborhood on the west side of Providence, the effects of the pandemic and need for internet access became urgent.
It became obvious to ONE Neighborhood Builders that the move to online access was essential, yet it was unattainable for many people near its historic home. So in the summer of 2020 — with the help of partners like OSHEAN, Harbor Networks, and Brave River Solutions — ONE|NB launched a free WiFi network, covering roughly half the neighborhood and potentially up to two-thirds of its 7,000 residents.
Called ONE|NB Connects, the network provided a crucial lifeline. And as the network is expanded in Phase 2, which should be completed by May 31, even more people will benefit.
Before the mesh WiFi network came into the neighborhood, the cost of getting online for essential services was just out of reach.
“We had to get cable with the WiFi,” said Harry Quiñones, who needed to help his mother, who had had two heart seizures. “You couldn’t just get WiFi. … the bills were outrageous, $342. Some families can’t afford that.”
Quiñones, who lives in Olneyville, felt the sting of COVID-19 acutely. His brother died of the disease, he said, and he needed to take care of his mother, who also lives in the neighborhood.
With the free WiFi, “it’s been able to help me with my mother’s health, I’m able to talk with doctors, and keep up with her progress,” he said. He added that his mother’s doctors were able to reach out to him directly online, so he could understand the side effects of his mother’s medications.
One of the other advantages of ONE|NB’s approach to providing neighborhood WiFi is that the organization is available to help. As with any new service, letting people know about it and helping them connect to it became part of the mission.
Antonio A. Rodriguez, ONE|NB’s Assistant Director of Asset Management, explained that shortly after the service launched, interns helped inform residents of the service and helped them connect. For Quiñones, it was a matter of visiting the ONE|NB office nearby.
“If I have a question, I just come across the street and ask them,” he said. For people who are not internet-savvy, he said, having an organization to turn to in the community is vital.
Access to the internet has also allowed Quiñones to order food for his mother, and it has permitted her to speak face-to-face with family members who live out of state.
“So now they can see each other,” he said. “And that helped with a little bit of depression because during COVID, a lot of older people stayed locked up. They didn’t have access to anything, but at least now, if they feel lonely, they can call their relatives.”
Phase 2 of ONE|NB Connects, when completed, is expected to reduce dead zones in the neighborhood and double or triple internet speeds. Phase 2 is also expected to boost neighborhood coverage to 30% to 35% of Olneyville, up from about 25%.
As of March 2022, there were an estimated 2,205 users of the free WiFi, with those users connecting on 3,150 devices.
The ONE|NB Connects network was never intended to replace the commercial services of traditional internet service providers (ISP), Rodriguez explained. Instead, it was intended to supplement what was available. Only 66.1% of households in Olneyville had internet access between 2015 and 2019, compared with a citywide access rate of 78.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
ONE|NB’s WiFi network expansion plans got a boost the first week in December 2021 when the state awarded ONE|NB with up to $125,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to use toward the project. Coupled with grants from the HarborOne Foundation and NeighborWorks America, and funding from other sources, that CDBG funding was enough to launch Phase 2, Rodriguez said.
The Phase 2 work involves installation of new equipment from Cambium Networks at 255 Manton Ave. and at ONE|NB’s offices at 66 Chaffee St. American Tele-Connect Services (ATS) is conducting the neighborhood installations, which involves relocating seven of the original 12 nodes and installing 11 new devices at various locations.
Antonio A. Rodriguez, ONE|NB’s Assistant Director of Asset Management, left,
and Harry Quiñones, of Providence, stand outside ONE Neighborhood Builders’ office
on Chaffee Street, where one of the ONE|NB Connects WiFi transmitters is located.
Photo by Steve Kearns, ONE|NB
Steve Kearns, ONE|NB’s Asset Management Project Manager, descends a ladder at ONE Neighborhood Builders’ Chaffee Street building after inspecting the WiFi transmitter. Photo by Steve Ide, ONE|NB
A WiFi hub at 255 Manton Avenue.