RealTime IT News

Wi-Fi for Everyone

You won't find these Wi-Fi users sipping Mocha Lattes at the local Starbucks while connecting to corporate networks. Nor are they the likely target market for Intel's new Centrino-powered laptops. But a growing number of low-income residents are discovering wireless to be their bridge across the digital divide.

From the backstreets of Philadelphia, PA to the Wi-Fi nirvana of Portland, OR, a coalition of housing advocates and an army of high tech experts are joining forces to unwire low-income housing across the nation. As a result, people are using Wi-Fi-based broadband Internet connections to the search for jobs, social services and improved living conditions.

The U.S. Department of Commerce in 2001 reported more than 78 percent of people making $75,000 or more had Internet access, while just 25 percent of families earning under $15,000 a year were online. This is the much-discussed 'digital divide.' While progress has been made, advocates of the poor say some areas have been left behind -- like West Philadelphia.

The average yearly income there hovers around $7,000 and completing high school is a hit-or-miss proposition. The term 'hotspot' more likely would describe a high-crime area, not a place where persons can find a wireless link to the Internet. However, the United Way is experimenting with using Wi-Fi to bring broadband Internet connections to the homeless and residents of low-income housing.

For less than a dial-up connection ($5 to $10 per month), the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania is installing two hotspots in a twenty square block area of the West Powelton and Haddington sections of West Philadelphia. The users are either residents of the People's Emergency Center homeless shelter or clients of the Philadelphians Concerned About Housing community group.

Now in its pilot stage, the hotspots will be installed the second week of April and be operational in May, according to Stephen Rockwell, director of technology outreach for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania .

After the first year of the trial, the United Way says it plans to expand wireless access to other low-income neighborhoods throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania.

With commercial hotspot operators charging per hour, how can the United Way keep costs so low? Along with $250,000 to create the network, the effort has also received funding from the state of Pennsylvania and local community groups. Networking companies such as Cisco, Unisys and IBM are also backing the One Economy Project.

At Camfield Estates , a 102-unit housing development in the Roxbury section of Boston, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are helping MIT's Creating Community Connections project to replace the current wired broadband link with Wi-Fi. Residents can log on for free.

San Jose, California and Chicago are other areas experimenting with bringing Wi-Fi connections to public housing.

Wi-Fi for Anyone

From her office in San Francisco, Lisa Patlis, tracks the wireless housing initiatives for One Economy , a Washington, DC-based organization working to bring broadband Internet connections to the working poor.

Patlis, a former senior advisor to U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo during the Clinton administration, says bringing Wi-Fi to the poor is often the best solution. Piping Wi-Fi to public housing is less expensive than retrofitting the buildings for wired broadband, she says. In Boston's Camfield Estates, antennas on the roof pick up signals from a local hotspot and pipe it into the homes of residents.

"Wi-Fi can be for anyone," Patlis says.

In Portland, OR, One Economy is working on its largest conversion to Wi-Fi yet. The city, known for embracing public wireless networks, is the location for three large Wi-Fi housing projects encompassing 500 low-income housing units.

One Economy also operates a Web portal called the Beehive, which it says is central to bringing wireless broadband to low-income consumers. Patlis calls the portal, offering assistance with everything from job searches to health information, the organization's "spinach."

The work by One Economy in Portland and other locations is supported by the Cisco Fellowship, part of a program by Cisco Systems to assist nonprofit organizations. Robert "Cisco Bob" Wendel, a former manager of the networking giant, now helps with One Economy's efforts to setup low-income housing with broadband Internet access. In 2001, faced with laying off 8,500 employees, Cisco gave employees the option of taking a two-thirds pay cut; retain benefits and work for a year at one of 21 company-approved nonprofit organizations.

Cisco, long known for its large enterprise customers, recently announced plans to purchase Linksys, allowing it to enter the consumer-level home wireless networking market, a move that's likely to help push broadband connections into low-income areas.