San Francisco’s latest project to close the much-discussed digital divide is the anticipated launch of free wireless Internet service for residents of the Sunnydale and Potrero public housing areas.
The city halted plans in 2018 for an ambitious project to provide fiber-optic broadband service to all residents and businesses that would have cost more than $ 1 billion. Instead, priority was given to free access to selected affordable residential areas.
The Sunnydale and Potrero public residential areas are now to be equipped with wireless access by the Department of Technology.
The San Francisco Housing Authority Commission unanimously approved the $ 1.2 million project that it will fund with its funds on Thursday. It includes the installation of the network and maintenance by the department through June 30, 2023. The project is subject to final approval by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The installation of the wireless access takes six to eight months. Work begins initially in Sunnydale, where 563 units are occupied, followed by Potrero Terrace, where 301 units are occupied. 609 young people live in the units in grades 3 to 12.
Both locations will be demolished and rebuilt over several years as part of the city’s HopeSF initiative in order to offer the locations a mixture of affordable and marketable living space.
“This Wi-Fi network is intended to serve residents of the existing units during the rebuilding,” said Linda Gerull, director of the Department of Technology, the San Francisco Examiner in an email.
In the past few years, the lack of home internet access for an estimated 100,000 San Francisco residents has been highlighted as a significant equity failure, but the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the need.
“In the face of the pandemic, there is a strong need for reliable internet connectivity to access distance learning and other key online services,” Cindy Gamez, procurement analyst with the San Francisco Housing Authority, told the commission. “The agency wants to work with the Department of Technology to deliver this much-needed Wi-Fi service.”
In April 2018, The City published a report on digital equity based on focus groups in six public housing areas and work centers that found “Affordability is the most cited challenge”.
“Internet and computers are too expensive for many public housing residents and labor customers, resulting in low subscription and ownership levels compared to the city average,” the report said. “Only about half of the participants have an Internet connection at home, less have a desktop or laptop computer. Instead, most rely on mobile devices and data plans for connectivity. “
The Sunnydale project costs about $ 670,000. This includes installing fiber optics at five locations and setting up a wireless bridge connecting the 50 buildings on the site. The Potrero site is designed similarly and costs $ 346,000.
It would be an open network with an expected speed of 50 megabits. The signal is accessed through people’s devices without the need for additional devices in their homes.
In addition to WiFi, the commission agreed to allocate up to $ 300,000 in grants to the Mayor’s Office for Housing and Community Development, which will be shared equally between the two locations.
Brian Cheu, community development director for the mayor’s office for housing and community development, said the Sunnydale grant will be given to a nonprofit to focus on tutoring and academic skills building for school-age children with a goal of 120 weekly to serve. The Potrero scholarship would go to a nonprofit that serves approximately 30 young people each week to focus on “mental health problems that a number of young people are going through”.
Cheu said they plan to provide the grants for services for a year once the Wi-Fi network is in place, to “try to grab people at the time when the excitement is highest and able to.” be to maximize their connection with them. “
The digital divide is attracting renewed attention from the board of directors, which on Tuesday adopted a resolution adopting recommendations from the Task Force on Economic Recovery report calling for earmarked annual funding for the expansion of fiber optics into affordable residential areas.
Gerull, head of the Department of Technology, told the Housing Authority Commission on Thursday that, since launching the Fiber to Housing program in 2018 to help reduce the digital divide in affordable housing, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the Local Internet provider Monkeybrains have around 7,300 devices connected to broadband or Wi-Fi.
“The need is much greater than what we have concluded so far,” said Gerull. “There are around 30,000 units and households that need to be connected together in affordable locations.”
The resolution introduced by Supervisor Ahsha Safai calls on Gerull’s department to submit a report by June 1 stating an estimate of the cost of connecting affordable housing to single occupancy hotels and “a literature review of the past 20 years of efforts by The City ”is presented to close the digital divide. “
“The city has been trying to bridge the digital divide for more than two decades,” Safai said at a recent board committee hearing. “The city has not yet started to really bridge this for our weakest.”
Safai said he intends to create “a multi-faceted plan that will end the digital divide”.
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