By Stephen Ide
ONE|NB Communications Manager
Expansion and upgrades to the free mesh WiFi network that ONE Neighborhood Builders created last year in Olneyville—called ONE|NB Connects—will begin in early January.
Originally slated to begin December 13, the work has been delayed, largely due to supply-chain issues.
Antonio A. Rodriguez, ONE|NB’s Assistant Director of Asset Management, said Phase 2 of ONE|NB Connects is expected to fill gaps in the WiFi network, reduce lag times, increase speeds, and expand the service’s reach by about 500 households.
Rodriguez said the system will provide internet access to an additional 500 to 1,000 individual users in the neighborhood. Currently, 1,640 unique users have accessed the network, he said.
When the pandemic began in early 2020, ONE Neighborhood Builders conceived of and created this free mesh network to address the urgent need for internet access in the Olneyville neighborhood.
ONE|NB’s WiFi network expansion plans got a boost the first week in December when the state awarded ONE|NB with up to $125,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to use toward the project. Coupled with a grant that same week from the HarborOne Foundation and funding from other sources, that CDBG funding was enough to launch Phase 2, Rodriguez said.
When COVID-19 forced the closure of schools, libraries, coffee shops, community centers, and other places where people could rely on free WiFi, ONE|NB jumped into action to provide WiFi access to residents of Olneyville, a Providence neighborhood of about .44 square miles. The service reaches more than 1,000 households.
“Free WiFi access is essential to bridging the digital divide,” said Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director of ONE|NB. “It’s essential for learning, working, socializing, and interacting with needed social services.”
The service has been successful, Rodriguez said, and the expansion will minimize dead zones, improve security, and increase speeds above the current rate-limit of 20 megabytes per second per device, allowing the network to double or triple the speeds that users now receive.
“The fact that we’ve had so many unique users demonstrates that people are actually using it as needed, whether they use it for the intended purpose or not,” Rodriguez said.
The service has been successful, and the expansion will minimize dead zones, improve security, and increase speeds above the current rate-limit of 20 megabytes per second per device, allowing the network to double or triple the speeds that users now receive.
—Antonio A. Rodriguez, ONE|NB Assistant Director of Asset Management
Rodriguez said ONE|NB has learned a lot since the original installation took place, particularly in cybersecurity and in educating the residents of the availability of the service. There was an uptick in the number of users after interns worked over the summer to inform residents of the program, Rodriguez said.
“Another thing that we identified, and we learned … is there were dead zones or gaps in coverage, and there were areas in the neighborhood that we weren’t servicing with the current infrastructure,” he said. “So that’s the initial goal of Phase 2: to fill the gaps and clear most, if not all, of the dead zones.”
There are about 7,000 residents of Olneyville, and Rodriguez said the current system covers about one-quarter of the local population. Phase 2 is designed to increase coverage to between 30% and 35% of Olneyville, he said, but at the same time reduce gaps in coverage and increase speeds, while expanding.
The ONE|NB Connects network was never intended to replace the commercial services of traditional ISPs providers, he 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.
“People either didn’t have access to affordable WiFi or couldn’t afford to actually get WiFi in the home for a multitude of reasons” when they needed it most, Rodriguez said. “This was like a different way for us to answer a community need.”
Work to expand and improve the network could take from six to eight weeks, he said, and involves installation of new equipment from Cambium Networks at the service backbone hubs at 255 Manton and at ONE|NB’s offices at 66 Chaffee St. American Tele-Connect Services (ATS) will do the neighborhood installations, which involves relocating seven of the original 12 nodes and installing 11 new devices at various locations.