Muni Wi-Fi Powers Hope at San Francisco Housing Project

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Wed, 04/04/2007 - 22:20.

  Westside Courts resident Emma Casey sits at home with her refurbished computer.
Photo: Sarah Lai Stirland

Derek just sent me a link to this article that should get people here thinking about our local economy, violence, the digital divide and solutions... read about the type of bridges we're building for East Cleveland and Cleveland... from Wired, about 3,000 miles away from NEO....
Sarah Lai Stirland Email 04.04.07 | 2:00 AM

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Westside Courts is a bleak concrete housing project in the city's Western Addition where violence is closer than a high-speed net connection, and one resident's first steps online include plans to create a memorial for the people who've died here.

Last month, volunteers turned on a novel broadband network in this 135-unit block, throwing a digital lifeline to Emma Casey and other tenants. Using a refurbished PC she picked up for $100, the 47-year-old mother of two adult children is now going online to help her son find a job, get health information and, she says, pay tribute to neighbors who've met with violent or untimely deaths.


Academic debates about the reality and cost of the so-called digital divide -- and the ability of individuals to fight economic disadvantage with nothing more than a computer and an IP address -- seem to crumble in a place like this. Like water and heat, internet is a clear necessity in the modern world, opening doors to education, employment and engagement.

Until now, Casey and her neighbors have endured spotty access to computers and the internet at a local community center a few blocks away. Time on the communal PCs is limited, and many residents of Westside Courts fear working on computers in an open environment in the neighborhood because of the ever-present threat of random violence.

So the four-month-old Westside Wi-Fi Project is welcome here. Funded to the tune of $50,000 by the non-profit Community Technology Foundation of California, CTFC, with an additional $45,000 provided by the city, the group is deploying a sophisticated mesh network of Wi-Fi access points fed by a pair of 6-Mbps DSL lines and a 4-Mbps cable connection.

Unlike typical muni Wi-Fi networks, the Westside radios sit inside people's apartments, not strapped to public utility poles. They run custom firmware that gives the radios the intelligence to self-configure into an ad-hoc user-generated network -- so they can be moved from one apartment to another without manual reconfiguration.

Not every resident has access to a PC, so the group set up refurbished machines in an empty apartment in the building to make a community computer center.

"We had a specific interest in funding community wireless projects because we saw wireless technology as a much cheaper technology that would provide access in communities where people couldn't afford their own DSL or cable connections," says Laura Efurd, chief community investment officer at CTFC.

The nascent system has already helped Westside teenagers Nina Macey and Wes King, who use the web for education and posting their rap tunes online, among other things. They've relied on computers at the community center, and school and library systems until Macey, 19, won a refurbished desktop machine earlier this year at a computer fair held at the complex.

She studies at a local San Francisco college and is completing some high school credits. Some of her professors use e-mail to distribute class syllabuses and to make appointments. "To do City College work, you better have a computer, because you have to sign up for classes on the internet," Macey says.

The benefits of public Wi-Fi may be obvious to residents of Westside Courts. But efforts to launch municipal Wi-Fi on a citywide scale are mired in politics. Like many cities around the world, San Francisco is locked in debate over the best way to bring affordable high-speed internet access to all of its residents. Politicians here are fighting over whether the city should move ahead immediately with a joint proposal by Google and Earthlink to build out wireless access, or instead take the time to create its own combination wireless and wired fiber-to-the-premises utility.

"It's about how to not let people fall farther and farther behind -- what we have to measure this by is not days, but by hours," said George Lee, a teacher at a local public high school in San Francisco, at a meeting on the issue last Thursday. "When you deny someone the ability to complete an assignment by an hour, or two weeks, do you know how far (my students) would have fallen behind? I'm saying that that's not fair. I don't think people realize how wide the gap is."