Jennifer Hawkins, left, CEO and president of the nonprofit ONE Neighborhood Builders, and David Marble, CEO and president of OSHEAN Inc., check new network antennae on the roof of ONE Neighborhood Builders’ Providence headquarters. The antennae are helping to provide free Wi-Fi to residents in the Olneyville neighborhood. PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
During a pandemic Zoom meeting from home, Jennifer Hawkins had a revelation.
The CEO and president of the nonprofit ONE Neighborhood Builders felt guilty for the ease with which her family was able to make the digital transition necessitated by school closures and remote work. They had resources out of reach for the people the organization seeks to serve.
“I saw that I had this incredible privilege,” she said. “They didn’t have the same luxury.”
Hawkins was already hearing stories of parents driving to fast-food parking lots and shopping plazas so their children could access schoolwork. She began exploring ways to bring free Wi-Fi service to the Olneyville section of Providence, where One Neighborhood is headquartered.
While not a techie herself, she was versed in the disparities that made Olneyville an outlier even within Providence, a city lagging behind the rest of Rhode Island in terms of average household income and resources.
At the time in 2020, only 66% of Olneyville households had internet access, compared with the citywide rate of 78%. The median income was $46,250 and over one-third of its children live in poverty, more than twice the statewide average. A quarter of the population is under 18 years old.
After consulting with modern networking experts, including the nonprofit OSHEAN Inc., the partners settled on a so-called “mesh network,” using a group of devices acting as a unified Wi-Fi network with multiple points of connectivity.
They embarked on a fundraising campaign to raise more than $260,000 and developed a heat map to determine optimal locations for access points to cover the greatest number of people with the fewest devices. The network was launched in October 2020.
Today, ONE/NB CONNECTS and its 12 access points and 24 transmitters provide high-speed access to more than two-thirds of Olneyville households, covering 7 million square feet of the neighborhood. There are currently 2,500 unique IP addresses – a numeric designation that identifies its location on the internet – using the service.
There is a growing movement to treat internet service as a basic utility such as electricity or running water.