Internet access has become a must after the COVID-19 hit.
With video chat apps largely replacing face-to-face interactions, and personal and corporate services falling behind the safety of screens, daily life has become very difficult to navigate for those without reliable internet access.
This changing reality prompted one graduate student at the University of Washington to think.
Esther Jang has spent time building cell towers in the Philippines to provide internet access to remote areas. I wondered, why not try the same in underserved areas of Seattle?
“It really started because of the pandemic,” said Jang. “Suddenly people realized that accessing the Internet was a utility – it’s something people just can’t do without.”
Seattle Report As of 2018, 88 percent of Seattle residents were found to have consistent broadband Internet access at home. But Yang says research on the topic usually raises more questions than answers. Who has a home, for example, and what really counts as reliable access to the Internet? What happens if someone misses a monthly payment — especially while the economic uncertainty of the pandemic is rising?
“All of these problems sort of surfaced,” she said.
Jang wanted to build something like New York City not, a non-profit organization that relies on volunteers to provide Internet access across towers in New York City. I spoke to Kurtis Heimerl, who co-directs the ICT for Development Lab at UW. The ICTD Lab studies the application of technology to poverty alleviation.
“I want to do everything we’ve been doing in the Philippines, but I want to do it in Seattle,” Hemmerl recalls.
They made a plan that evolved into Seattle Community Network, an Internet service provider backed by volunteers and partners. It is funded by the City of Seattle, University of Public Interest Technology
Network, National Science Foundation, and Individual Donors.
Building the collaborative network has not been without its hurdles—not least the proliferation of hills and buildings in Seattle.
Jang said Seattle’s urban terrain — carved by ancient glaciers as much as skyscrapers — is one of the biggest enemies of wireless cellular communications. In short, things tend to get in the way. A tall building can block the signal, and hills or valleys can mean a loss of coverage.
However, the Seattle Community Network now operates six LTE-based towers around the Seattle area — including one at Franklin High School — with a seventh in the works in Tacoma. coverage for each tower It ranges from blocks to miles, depending on the location.
As the project continues to research new locations for the towers to expand coverage, the focus is now on building a network of volunteers and partners who can help educate potential users on how to access the free service.
“It’s really hard to get the word out to people,” Jang said. “You can blow something up on Facebook, but if they’re not online, they’re less likely to see it.”
So far, the strategy has been to partner with community organizations—including the King County Library System, the Black Brilliance Project, and the Filipino Community in Seattle—who are helping to spread the word.
“Our model really works with and supports a whole range of partner organizations in providing connectivity,” Hemmerl said.
He added, “At the end of the day, the basic idea is to run a cellular network, create an infrastructure the way T-Mobile and Verizon do. Take that idea and try to bring it to the level of these organizations that have the social capacity to deal with these populations, but not the technical ability.” “.
The Seattle Community Network is Currently seeking Individual volunteers who have skills related to community building, education, and technology, as well as people who have hands-on experience building things and connecting electronic devices.
“We definitely need people with technical expertise, networking and IT are the most useful, but also people who want to build things,” Zhang said. “Even people who have wired electrical in their homes, have some electrical skills, or are just regular software engineers.”
She said that building a community around Internet access for all was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project, and she hopes to find more like-minded people who can donate their time and skills to the cause.
“I honestly think one of the most useful things about this project is just the people,” said Jang.