Antonio Rodriguez, ONE|NB’s Assistant Director of Asset Management, joined panelists from around the country on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, during an online NeighborWorks America symposium on bridging the digital divide.

Rodriguez spoke about the creation of ONE|NB Connects, the free mesh WiFi network installed during the pandemic in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. When the pandemic began in early 2020, ONE|NB conceived of and created the network to address the urgent need for internet access in the neighborhood. Residents needed access for school, health, and other essential services.

NeighborWorks America showed a video featuring Rodriguez and Harry, a resident of Olneyville who uses the ONE|NB Connects service. The full-length version is below:

While the pandemic drove home the need for digital inclusion, communities responded in different ways. Panelists agreed that digital inclusion is not the same as digital equity – access doesn’t equate to usability.

Rodriguez and other panelists noted the importance of getting community input to learn what people actually need. While ONE|NB Connects was set up to provide WiFi access, Rodriguez said, it took interns to walk the neighborhood and inform community members of the service before they started to use it. In the case of ONE|NB Connects, Rodriguez said, usage rose from 200 users to 1,500 “once we showed people how to use it.”

“We realized that just getting access to the digital realm is not enough,” he said. “We’re constantly inviting people to the table. … The community knows what it wants.”

Internet access and speeds vary in communities despite levels of coverage. Only by reaching out to the community, in their own environment can service providers know what is needed and how well the needs of the community are being serviced.

And access is not the only issue, Rodriguez said. The devices people use can be an issue limiting their internet access, an issue in low-income communities where people cannot afford the latest, fastest devices. And because the internet and electronics are always changing, there is a constant need for upgrades. “It’s an ongoing battle,” he said.

ONE|NB Connects happened largely because of its local partners, Rodrigues said, including OSHEAN, Harbor Networks, and American Tele-Connect Services. And local solutions are key, he said, toward making a free WiFi network replicable in other parts of the state.

The Phase 2 expansion of ONE|NB Connects is under way. The expansion project is expected to fill gaps in the WiFi network, reduce lag times, increase speeds, and expand the service’s reach to more parts of the neighborhood.