Several Dayton-area communities are using federal coronavirus relief funding to install free Wi-Fi in their city or village as the need for internet access has greatly increased during the pandemic.
Yellow Springs, using $30,000 of CARES Act funding, hopes to have fully-functional Wi-Fi downtown by Oct. 30. Dayton, Springboro and Oxford have similar plans for free WIFI.
“This is a must,” said Yellow Springs Village Manager Josue Salmeron. “I don’t see a future for any municipality if they cannot connect their citizens to the larger marketplace and the world.”
OpenVault, a company that tracks broadband usage, reported in the first quarter of 2020, average broadband consumption in the United States increased 47 percent. It’s also a 17 percent rise over the fourth quarter of 2019.
The increase comes from the March stay-at-home order issued in Ohio and other states that caused schools and work to go online to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Other things like entertainment, including both video streaming and gaming, saw increases in usage as people needed to entertain themselves.
Kevin Hallinan, a professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and renewable and clean energy at the University of Dayton, said cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh already have successful city-wide Wi-Fi networks and sees this as a growing trend.
“You’re seeing this pop up all over the country,” Hallinan said. “It’s a trend that’s getting a lot more attention as a result of COVID-19 and it’s a trend that’s getting more attention in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement and inequity associated with the lack of access that, not just black communities, but black and poor communities have.”
Hallinan said that even if low income people have access to internet, they likely don’t have devices to get on the internet with. He worked on a project where he and some students were working to help people in the Twin Towers neighborhood reduce energy consumption and also decided to install internet in houses without it. About half of the houses they worked with did not have internet and many of those households didn’t have devices for children to use beyond a smart phone.
“The digital divide is documented to show that kids who don’t have access to internet are falling further behind,” Hallinan said. “This is really is a justice issue in the end.”
Hallinan said ultimately, giving access to Wi-Fi is not enough. Along with Wi-Fi there needs to be a support system.
“It is essential for people to imagine how we can leverage the existence of a Wi-Fi system that gives access to all to create more equity,” he said.
Salmeron said Yellow Springs will install Wi-Fi in two phases. The first phase will cost about $55,000 and will install fiber lines overhead downtown. The second phase will install Wi-Fi down Corry Street and cost about $58,000. The fiber on Corry Street will stretch about a mile.
Salmeron said this is a business and school need. The coronavirus pandemic has made that even more evident.
“We’re in a digital world,” Salmeron said. “Everything is online.”
Dayton and Springboro are also looking at using CARES dollars to offer free wireless internet. Dayton is looking specifically to provide access to telemedicine platforms and remote health care services during and after the pandemic, Mayor Nan Whaley previously told this newspaper.
Dayton has been allocated about $8 million in federal CARES Act money, which Congress approved to reimburse coronavirus-related costs.
The city has issued a notice of funding opportunities that says it has $1.4 million in federal CARES Act dollars available to expand broadband access to multiple northwest Dayton neighborhoods, including Philadelphia Woods, Fairview, Hillcrest, Dayton View, Mount Vernon and Santa Clara.
Hallinan said this is a good way to spend CARES funding, because the coronavirus has forced kids to learn remotely and businesses to conduct nearly everything online.
“If you don’t do this, then you’re cementing the poverty structures that already exist in the community,” Hallinan said. “Research supports that if you don’t work to erase the digital divide, kids fall further behind and their ability to be successful in the kinds of jobs available to them in this world becomes increasingly impossible.”
The Miami Valley Educational Computer Association will install the fiber network in Yellow Springs.
Salmeron said connecting to the Wi-Fi will be free for the first year. There will be different layers of connectivity, like a private network for businesses and a public connection for people hanging out downtown. In the future, Yellow Springs could have a premium network, that individuals or businesses would pay for, and also a free network, Salmeron said.
The schools will contribute about $20,000 for the internet network. The village will contribute $30,000 of CARES Act funding. Salmeron said the village also received an anonymous donation of $2,000 for the project.
Yellow Springs got about $330,000 in federal CARES Act funding. Yellow Springs schools also got some coronavirus relief funding, Salmeron said.
Yellow Springs' Wi-Fi network will offer one gigabyte of bandwidth. Salmeron said he hopes to provide up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps).
Dayton is looking to provide Internet speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The city wants the project up and operational before Dec. 28.
In Springboro, the free internet access would be available within the Wright Station development on the northwest corner of Ohio 741 and Ohio 73, Main Street and Central Avenue.
Two antennas, set up on the Springboro arts center, will provide the Wi-Fi access throughout the DORA recently set up at Wright Station.
Springboro City Manager Chris Pozzuto told city council the city expected to pay $21,000 for the service from EdgeConnect, a company previously involved in the Miami Valley Cable Council Fiber Ring Project.
Councilwoman Becky Iverson said in an email to this news organization that she is supportive of using CARES funds for Wi-Fi to incentivize economic development and allow those working from home or going to school virtually to have an alternative work space.
Visitors outside buildings in the complex and “in the more open areas of the buildings” will be able to use the free service to access the internet sitting at benches or walking between the center, Warped Wing and other businesses. Pozzuto said the service could be extended to other buildings in the development through agreements with the city or Synergy Development, the company building the project with the city.
Hallinan also said that business support will be essential in making municipal Wi-Fi work. Pittsburgh, for example, found large support from businesses in the community.
Oxford is also considering spending CARES funds to provide internet to underserved parts of town in an effort to help students. Columbus and Cleveland are also making efforts to connect their students to the internet, using CARES funding to buy Chromebooks or providing hotspots for students.
Reporters Larry Budd and Cory Frolik contributed to this report.